Out of prison, former Gary lawyer wins city contracts
By Michael Gonzalez Post-Tribune correspondent May 3, 2014 12:36PM
Willie Harris, Gary attorney, arrives at Federal Court in Hammond, with family friends for his sentencing, Jan. 15, 2008. | Sun-Times Media~file
Updated: June 5, 2014 6:51AM
GARY — Willie Harris, a former attorney who served more than four years in federal prison, has rebuilt his life, started a new career and may return to practicing law, he said Friday.
Harris and his firm, Dunes Construction, landed more than $89,300 in federally funded home remodeling contracts Thursday at the Board of Public Works and Safety meeting.
Dunes Construction beat out other firms in the competitive bidding process. The contracts were awarded on recommendations from Gary’s Community Development department, which reports to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson but administers federal funds.
A felony conviction does not prohibit him from pursuing federally funded contracts for his firm, said Harris, who once was well known in the city’s political circles.
State records show Harris incorporated Dunes Construction in December 2008. He was sentenced to 55 months in a federal prison camp in Wisconsin in January 2008.
Harris said he surrendered his law license in mid-2010.
“I had to do something to make a living,” he said. “And, obviously, I can’t practice law right now, and I can’t be involved with anything with the law right now.”
Harris was one of several convictions related to the Gary Urban Enterprise Association scandal of 2005 and 2006. His conviction was related to a fraudulent land sale that also involved former Lake County Councilman Will Smith and political operative Roosevelt Powell.
The former director of GUEA, JoJuana Meeks, also was convicted and sentenced to federal prison.
Freeman-Wilson was the attorney for the GUEA board, but she has never been implicated or charged with any wrongdoing.
Dunes Construction won the recent contracts according to federal criteria used by Community Development, said Director Arlene Colvin.
Federal contracts are awarded to contractors who have the lowest bids, are financially capable of handling the work and who have good work histories, she said.
In one case Wednesday, Dunes Construction was awarded a contract for work on a house in the 1600 block of W. 11th Ave. over a lower bidding company, Divine Dwellings. According to a document read at the Board of Works meeting, Divine Dwellings was not the most responsive or most responsible bidder for the project.
When two contractors come in with similar bids, the department has some discretion in awarding contracts, Colvin said.
“It’s not a significant amount of leeway, but we’re allowed to take into consideration a contractor’s ability to complete the work and their financial ability to complete work,” Colvin said. “You may have the low bid, but if you don’t have financial ability to complete the work or do so in a timely manner, that affects our decision, as well.”
Harris said he enjoys construction work, but he is planning to practice law again. Harris is prohibited from practicing law until five years after he surrendered his law license. That would put a possible return to legal practice in the next two years.
In the meantime, Harris said he will continue to build his construction company, which includes six full-time and part-time employees.
“My past will always be there,” he said. “It doesn’t have to hinder my future. You can’t correct things that happened in the past. You just move forward.”