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Some workers cleaning up after Katrina are still waiting for pay

BATON ROUGE, La.—The offer of $1,500 a week to clean up hurricane debris in Louisiana was so tempting to Ellsworth "Ed" Smith that he withdrew from college in Charlotte, N.C. He went to New Orleans, lived with three other men in a cramped motel and got to work.

A month later, the father of two—and many others—say they haven't been paid.

Smith is among 46 laborers and truckers who said they were promised high pay for their work by a Georgia subcontractor but have been stiffed. Federal contracting and law enforcement officials are investigating their case. The truckers and laborers were hired by a group of subcontractors working for two giant firms that were awarded $500 million contracts by the federal government to get rid of hurricane debris.

In interviews Sunday and Monday, the truckers and laborers said they were owed more than $250,000 in back pay. A second group of 20 truckers working for another subcontracting firm also said they were fighting over unpaid wages.

"Christmas is a week away, and Dad has no money," Smith said. "My rent is late for this month because I have no funds. Every bill I have is late this month."

With billions of dollars flowing to the Katrina-damaged Gulf of Mexico region, complaints are becoming more frequent that those doing the mundane job of cleaning up aren't being paid.

"I've certainly heard quite a few complaints from different workers from different areas saying they were promised money and they didn't get it," said Kris Wartelle, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Attorney General's Office

Officials for the two large contractors hired by the Army Corps of Engineers—Phillips and Jordan of Knoxville, Tenn., and ECC Operating Services of Burlingame, Calif.—acknowledged the problems and said their companies were investigating all complaints. Army Corps spokesman Bob Anderson said his agency also was investigating.

The problem stems from farming out the massive amount of work to subcontractors, who hire their own subs, who hire yet more subcontractors. ECC has about 10 first-tier subcontractors; Phillips and Jordan has four.

"Those cases are rare, but it definitely does happen," ECC general counsel Glenn Sweatt said. "There's a certain level of chaos in the environment. There are certain bad actors out there who would seek to take advantage of this chaos."

It's almost unavoidable, an official of Phillips and Jordan said.

"This is just the way it goes," said Teddy Phillips, son of the company's owner. "You can't micromanage every sub of a sub of a sub. ... It gets real gray when it goes four deep."

In the most documented instance that Knight Ridder could find, 31 truckers—almost all of them from Baton Rouge—and 15 laborers and equipment operators from North Carolina, South Carolina and Pennsylvania said they were hired by Johnny Alphonso Johnson of Hinesville, Ga. He told them he was a subcontractor working on both the ECC and Phillips and Jordan contracts, many of the truckers said.

ECC, however, investigated the truckers' complaints and found that Johnson never had worked for an ECC subcontractor, Sweatt said.

"We can't find any record of him working for us," Sweatt said.

Johnson did work for AME of Norco, La., which in turn worked for Metro Disposal of New Orleans, which worked for Phillips and Jordan. AME paid Johnson about $10,400, Metro project manager Anthony Penn said.

But the money seemed to stop with Johnson, according to the truckers and contractors.

Calls to Johnson and his attorney weren't returned. One of Johnson's phone numbers was disconnected. His home address in Georgia lists four businesses as registered there.

It all started when Johnson, through mutual friends, asked Nameh Baaheth of Baton Rouge to hire dozens of truckers and laborers. Baaheth, a part-time pastor and the operator of three trucks, said he'd organized 31 truckers who are longtime friends and that they agreed to work for Johnson. Jimmy Chaplin of Bethlehem, Pa., said he was hired to provide 15 equipment operators and laborers, hiring mostly friends and family members from the Carolinas and Pennsylvania.

The men started work Nov. 4 and stopped Nov. 19, when it became apparent that they weren't getting paid. The truckers said they went through the required training with either Phillips and Jordan or ECC. They produced company ID cards and truck-display placards identifying them as official haulers for the companies.

Johnson promised to pay the truckers weekly at a rate of $90 an hour—$30 higher than the going rate—although fuel and other expenses would come out of the truckers' pockets, said Douglas Ennis, a leader of the truckers.

"It was going to be really good money," said Ennis, who'd planned to buy his wife a sapphire ring for Christmas but now is trying to figure out how to afford any presents at all for her and their 8-year-old daughter.

Ennis worked 126 hours, according to his invoices. He also owns a second truck, driven by an employee of his who worked another 111.5 hours, he said. And Ennis said Johnson had promised to pay $350 for tailgate modifications to one of his trucks. The total owed, according to Ennis: $21,725.

Earnest Griffin claims that he's owed $13,000. Burnell Hayes says he's owed $10,000. Norman "Butch" Collins says he's due $5,580.

"They're sending the money to the big guys, and the big guys aren't taking care of their responsibility; they're just letting it go," said Collins, a Baton Rouge resident. "Us small guys, we're just getting kicked around."

Jimmy Chaplin, a loading equipment operator, was in an even more precarious situation. He'd hired 15 friends and family members to go to New Orleans and work as laborers for Johnson.

Even though Chaplin says he hasn't been paid—he's owed $135,000, he says—he's paying the people he hired.

"We were obligated to pay them," Chaplin said. "It's killing me. Right now I'm out of pocket $42,000. I feel really bad because everybody's got kids. I'm about to lose my house I just purchased. I've got three kids of my own."

In the other trucker case, Anthony Rogers of VNR Construction in Atlanta said he was owed $55,000 by subcontractor Stanford and Sons Trucking of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for hurricane work. He says he's part of a group of 20 truckers who are owed nearly $1.3 million.

Stanford and Sons owner Stanford Amritt Jr. said he was paid $210,000 by Copeland Construction, which had promised him $1.3 million when it hired him. He said it was a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 16 cents on the dollar.

Rogers and Amritt said Stanford and Sons worked for Copeland Construction of Miami, which worked for Phoenix Global, which worked for Omni Pinnacle, which worked for ECC. ECC's Sweatt said he wasn't sure where Copeland fit in, but that Stanford and Sons, Phoenix Global and Omni Pinnacle all had been paid for their work and that there were signed statements showing that they'd been paid.

Amritt produced paperwork showing that Copeland was part of the chain of subcontracts and said he was forced to sign a paper that said he'd been paid or he wouldn't have gotten the 16 cents on the dollar that he settled for.

Copeland officials couldn't be reached for comment.

Laborer Smith said he thought he not only was going to make good money but also "get paid for doing a good deed" by cleaning up for people who lost everything in Katrina.

Now, Smith said, "I'm in the process of losing everything due to our own storm."

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(Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-TRUCKERS

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