CINCINNATI — A fraud conviction hasn’t stopped high-profile Newtown business owner Doug Evans from collecting more than $400,000 from local government entity contracts and public purchases of items such as mulch and gravel in the past three years.
A jury in December 2018 found Evans and his company, Evans Landscaping, guilty of defrauding the city of Cincinnati and the state of Ohio by taking millions in demolition work that was supposed to go to minority and small business contractors.
“The fraud in this case makes it unfair to all of the legitimate small businesses who are trying to compete,” then U.S. Attorney Ben Glassman said after the convictions.
Glassman had hoped the Evans case, which took the government years to investigate and prosecute, would become a warning to other businesses owners.
Now, three years later, Evans is out of prison on house arrest after serving six months of his 21-month sentence behind bars.
And his company, Evans Landscaping, is back on government-paid job sites from Hamilton County to the Village of Newtown.
Federal prosecutors had asked U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett to ban Evans Landscaping from public work for three years. But the judge declined.
So, there is no legal reason why Evans Landscaping, which was also criminally convicted as a company, can’t win government work.
Conversely, there is also no legal reason why local government agencies must award work to a company with a fraud conviction, even if it presents the lowest bid, said attorney J. Thomas Hodges, who specializes in government contract law.
Hodges has no direct knowledge of the Evans case but agreed to speak generally about how local government contracts are awarded.
Ohio law sets a general standard that municipalities should accept the lowest and best bid, Hodges said, with each municipality able to define what “best” means for them.
“I think protecting its own taxpayers is perhaps probably the best reason why a government would want to look closely at a bid from a contractor in those circumstances, even if it were the lowest,” Hodges said. “Minority contracting, and the opportunities that flow from that, are a very important public policy.”
Evans did not return multiple requests for comment.
Through public records requests, WCPO discovered numerous contracts and vendor payments made by government agencies to Evans Landscaping or other Evans-owned companies since his December 2018 conviction.
The biggest spend came from Hamilton County, which awarded Evans Landscaping a $65,000 demolition contract in 2020 to demolish a Colerain apartment building. That same year county commissioners approved a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.
Hamilton County officials also began conducting a disparity study in 2021, to see how small- and women-owned businesses work with the county.
Hamilton County spokesperson Bridget Doherty said the county is required to competitively bid and award contracts based on pre-determined bidding criteria under Ohio law.
“Since Evans Landscaping has not been debarred by Ohio or the federal government, the county examined its bidding criteria at the time and determined that the bid must be awarded to Evans. However, we are actively evaluating all options for addressing these issues in the future,” Doherty said in a written response to WCPO.
Hamilton County also spent an additional $108,000 in vendor payments to Evans’ companies for items such as sand and gravel over the past three years.
Meanwhile, the city of Cincinnati has not awarded any contracts to Evans since his conviction. Officials have bought firewood for park nature camps a few times, for a total of $2,039.
“The city has followed this case closely and is keenly aware of the serious issues related to Evans Landscaping,” city spokesman Rocky Merz wrote in response to WCPO. “The city has not awarded and has no services or ongoing contract with Evans for firewood or anything else and would consider the criminal convictions of Evans Landscaping and its owners or executives if Evans Landscaping sought a contract with the city in the future.”
Two Cincinnati employees testified at Evans’ trial about the numerous complaints they received about Evans Landscaping employees and equipment on job sites that were supposed to be run by a small minority business named Ergon Site Construction.
Rochelle Thompson, who ran the city’s contract compliance office, testified that Ergon was a “hot topic” in her office.
She sent Korey Jordan, who was supposed to be the head of Ergon, a letter warning him not to share personnel, supplies or equipment with another business that wasn’t certified as small business enterprise.
“They have to be separate entities, they cannot cross the line,” Thompson testified.
Al Taylor, an assistant supervisor in the city’s buildings and inspections department, testified about peculiarities on Ergon job sites – such as the fact that Jordan was rarely present and did not do much site work. He also noticed that Evans employees interchangeably wore Evans and Ergon work shirts
Four former Evans employees pleaded guilty and testified for prosecutors at trial, saying that fraudulent invoices, checks and photos were created to make Ergon seem like a legitimate minority business when in fact it was part of Evans.
A jury convicted Evans of creating Ergon as a shell company, with an African American employee as a figurehead, Korey Jordan, to win millions in minority demolition jobs.
"It is worth reminding the court that the letters in the name 'Ergon' could be rearranged to form the word 'Negro,'" Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Mangan wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "One witness testified that Doug Evans thought the use of that term for Ergon was hilarious ... The word 'Negro' was written in handwriting at the top of an invoice that was found on a table in Doug Evans' office during the search.”
The Evans convictions put local government agencies in an unusual position, Hodges said.
“Normally just the collateral consequences of dealing with that kind of charge or conviction would almost self-disqualify,” Hodges said. “So it would be surprising in that event for a city or a municipality to even have to review a bid from a company like that.”
When Barrett sentenced Evans and Evans Landscaping in January 2020, he placed the company on probation for three years. Instead of banning the company from public work during probation, he ordered it to pay $500,000 - half of which was to be set aside as community service payments to help minority businesses.
The result: Evans Landscaping is legally able to solicit government jobs.
Forest Hills School District has spent more than $66,000 with Evans since his conviction, including two repair jobs at district facilities, and on materials such as playground mulch. The district has not signed a contract with Evans since his conviction, but contracts are not required for routine maintenance jobs at the school district.
"The district works hard to maximize impact on student learning and experiences through sound financial decisions that stretch each taxpayer dollar. Primary considerations used to select contractors for maintenance are quality of their product or service, lowest possible cost and safety,” according to a written statement from Forest Hills School District.
In the village of Newtown, where the Evans Landscaping headquarters is located, officials have spent more than $19,000 on contracts with the company to remove debris from a culvert and repair a creek near the entrance to Ivy Hills Country Club, of which Evans is a co-owner.
Newtown Mayor Mark Kobasuk wrote to WCPO that the village, “has an obligation to its taxpayers to make sure we spend village funds in a fiscally responsible manner and consistent with public bidding laws.”
“In instances where Evans Landscaping submits the lowest acceptable bid or proposal, the village will award the contract to Evans. This is consistent with our policies and state laws governing public bidding,” Kobasuk wrote.
Kobasuk praised Evans Landscaping as having provided the village with prompt, efficient, and satisfactory service for many years, including saving the village $60,000 on a recent project.
“I think that’s a question ultimately for each taxpayer,” Hodges said. “While I definitely think there’s people who would be highly concerned about continuing to contract with a company that has certain convictions … I think there’s a good portion of taxpayers who would say, if they can get it done the cheapest, that’s all we care about.”
The Kenton County Airport Board awarded Evans Landscaping contracts for hauling snow at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport since 2018.
“Evans Landscaping meets state and federal requirements for companies eligible to submit bids to the airport. In this instance, the company was the lowest responsive bidder,” said airport spokesperson Mindy Kershner.