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Sex offender loses COVID-19 contract at VA hospital after USA TODAY asks questions

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/11/2020 Josh Salman, USA TODAY

Ezekiel Lopez is a registered child sexual predator in Illinois who spent more than three years in prison for sexually abusing two teenage girls under his care. 

The conviction was not a barrier between Lopez and more than $700,000 in federal contracts to provide cleaning and janitorial services to help fight COVID-19 at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital just outside Chicago.

No rules specifically prevented it.

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Government contractors are supposed to indicate on their applications whether they’ve had any felony convictions within the past two years. But Lopez was convicted in 2007.

The federal government can ban vendors convicted of fraud or other procurement violations from future contracts, usually for up to three years. But that debarment does not include sex crimes.

As a result neither Lopez nor his company, America’s Best at Work – which offers auto tire distribution as well as janitorial services – appeared on any list of parties excluded from Department of Veterans Affairs contracting.

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said the company met the criteria to become a vendor under federal law, which includes being deemed “responsible” through its registration with the System for Award Management. The vendor also was in good standing with the federal government’s database for “performance and integrity.” 

But days after USA TODAY began questioning the agency about Lopez’s background, the VA hospital changed course, ending its relationship with the business as of July 23. 

Candace Oliva, a health systems specialist to the hospital director, said in an email that “nothing questionable” had turned up in the vendor’s two-year background check. But “after discovering this particular issue, Hines VA Hospital terminated its relationship with the contractor.”

Lopez did not respond to several calls and emails seeking comment for this story. A voice mailbox for the number listed for his company was full.

Procurement experts described the situation as a result of federal procurement laws aimed at helping the disadvantaged. Lopez received preferences on all of his contracts because his business is considered small and is owned by a veteran and American Indian.

Some cite the need for offenders released from prison to find meaningful employment and argue laws restricting felons from access to work have gone too far. The Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act prohibits federal contractors from requesting criminal histories from candidates until a conditional job offer has been extended, and civil rights laws prohibit discrimination against applicants for prior records.

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Others questioned whether a child sex offender should be able to land lucrative public contracts funded by taxpayers. While different in each state, regulations in Illinois bar sex offenders from working in more than 100 professions that either require a license or are off limits to felons, including health care providers.

His prior conviction, they noted, likely would have been more of a hindrance to finding work in the private sector.

“You don’t land on the (excluded parties) list for a sex crime,” said Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in federal procurement. “People can just turn right around and do this. The federal government says, ‘We’re open for business – come on in.’”

Sorry for what he's done 

Now 49 years old, Lopez is registered as a child sexual predator with Illinois State Police. He is required to identify his current address online anytime he moves so neighbors and anyone in the general public are aware of his past.

Police records from the small Illinois town of Rolling Meadows show that a girl came to authorities in 2006 with accusations that Lopez had sexually abused her. The teenage girl told investigators that around midnight the previous August, Lopez entered her room, said he was doing laundry and made her remove her clothes. The girl fell back asleep and woke 30 minutes later to Lopez having intercourse with her, according to a police report.

Lopez went on to molest the girl at least two more times, she told authorities. Another teenager sleeping in the home’s basement came forward with similar accusations. That year, prosecutors say, Lopez admitted to sexual intercourse on several occasions with both girls.

a screenshot of a social media post: Ezekiel Lopez appears on the Illinois Sex Offender website, maintained by Illinois State Police. © Illinois State Police Ezekiel Lopez appears on the Illinois Sex Offender website, maintained by Illinois State Police.

During an interview with a prosecutor, Lopez said that it felt “natural” but that he “knew it was wrong.” He eventually said he was sorry for what he had done.

Lopez was convicted of criminal sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual assault on a victim between the ages of 13 and 17, according to the sex offender registry. He served time in an Illinois state prison from April 2007 through August 2010 and spent another two years on parole before he was discharged from the system. 

The residence listed for Lopez on the sex offender registry matches the business address used by America’s Best at Work Corp. in federal contracting documents. The state corporation database in Illinois lists Lopez as the company’s president.

Federal spending records show Lopez and his business were handed more than $700,000 in COVID-19 work from the federal government this year, all without any competition from other vendors.

The first COVID-19 contract was signed April 8, and through change orders and exercised options the work was scheduled to continue through Sept. 30. After the VA canceled its contract in July, that total obligation amount slid to about $443,000, according to adjustments in the federal data.

Under the contract terms, the company was responsible for managing general janitorial services at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Cook County. As owner, Lopez was in charge of managing the crews while his employees performed the actual work, said Oliva, the hospital’s health systems specialist.

Leg up in preferences for vendors

The federal government has spent more than $20 billion in response to COVID-19 in a race to secure supplies and prepare its facilities.

An ongoing USA TODAY investigation into those contracts found vendors previously accused of fraud against the government were handed new COVID-19 orders despite their costly settlements. Other vendors without any experience or qualifications also have surfaced overnight to profit from the pandemic, but many ultimately can’t deliver on their promises.

But COVID-19 was not the first time Lopez’s company had landed federal government contracts.

America’s Best at Work Corp. was awarded $139,500 in total award obligations in fiscal year 2014/15 – about three years after Lopez's release from parole. The vendor went on to earn $108,500 worth of federal contracts the following year, about $13,000 in 2016/17 and another $57,500 in 2017/18.

The $700,000 in originally awarded coronavirus contracts brought the largest windfall, federal records show.

In all, since becoming a federal contractor, the company has received eight awards in Illinois ranging from sourcing dental instruments to ground treating and janitorial services. All of that money came from the VA.

Federal agencies like the VA are encouraged to do business with small, disadvantaged companies, along with those owned by veterans – part of an effort to undo past disparities. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has vowed to further improve contracting opportunities for minority-owned businesses.

Lopez checks all the boxes. He was enlisted in the U.S. Army from 1989 to 1997, according to records from his criminal case. His business also has applied as a certified Indian Preference Firm of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Sells, Arizona, the company’s website says. 

That military service, along with the company’s status as Native American-owned, gave Lopez a leg up when he bid for federal government work under rules designed to help these traditionally disadvantaged groups.

The government also focuses its backgrounding efforts on a company’s history – and not that of its principals and shareholders – looking more at the vendor’s financial strength, past performance and ability to meet the specifications of the contract.

That’s especially true for more routine services like janitorial work, said Benjamin Brunjes, assistant professor at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.

Brunjes said that even if the principal of a company was under sanction, loopholes allow executives convicted of crimes to start new corporations and win new contracts. 

“The federal government is worried about (the) performance and financial solvency of its vendors,” he said, “not the backgrounds of their owners.”

Balance of public safety and recidivism

Industry trade groups for janitorial contractors cite best practices that call for their members to background screen employees. 

Additional oversight followed the 2015 publication of “Rape on the Night Shift,” an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and other media partners. It found that the late nights and weekend hours surrounding the commercial janitorial industry created a setting that left workers susceptible to assault. 

While he could not comment on Lopez’s case, Mikel Gabrielson, a representative of ISSA — The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association – said that if a janitorial employee was hired despite a sex abuse conviction, it could be problematic, especially if the company has any clients near schools, day cares or other places with restrictions and potential access to victims.

Aramark, a Philadelphia-based company that provides facility cleaning, among other services, also requires conditional hires to undergo post-offer, pre-employment screening, as part of the hiring process to “ensure customer safety,” a spokesman said. Other large competitors have similar protocols. 

In addition, in Illinois, sex offenders are not allowed within 500 feet of any school buildings, they are not allowed in public parks and those convicted after 2010 were  banned from using social media until the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the rule last year. They are still prohibited from obtaining various professional licenses, including health care.

That means doctors, nurses and other medical professionals with past sex crime convictions are not allowed to practice in VA hospitals and clinics in Illinois without a special waiver. Others argued those same protections for the public should extend to janitors and other contractors who might work in these buildings, where an offender could have access to VA employees and patients.

Robert Burton, a Washington, D.C., attorney who served as a career procurement official in the White House, said the janitorial contract was an example of a federal acquisition system in need of reform.

“It’s disturbing,” Burton said. “Especially if it’s a small business, you want to look at the business owner and whether they are responsible.”

But industry trade groups have worked with various programs in the past to help train certain inmates. And the “ban the box” movement across the U.S. has emphasized giving offenders a second chance at meaningful work after their release back to society to help lower crime and prevent recidivism.

Jill Levenson, a professor at Barry University in Miami who studies how society monitors and treats sex criminals, said laws designed to protect the public need to be balanced with a past offender’s ability to find work and support themselves.

“It all has to be weighed and balanced,” Levenson said. “People have to work. When people have been incarcerated or committed a crime, the expectation is they go back into society, be acclimated and be law-abiding … employment is a tough one.”

Josh Salman is a reporter on the USA TODAY Network investigations team. Contact him at jsalman@gatehousemedia.com or @joshsalman or (941) 361-4967.  

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sex offender loses COVID-19 contract at VA hospital after USA TODAY asks questions

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