LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A Louisville construction firm has accused the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet of issuing a "fraudulent letter" that kept the company from landing a contract on the $2.3 billion Ohio River Bridges Project, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week.

Mathis & Sons and its owner, Maureen Mathis, claim the cabinet’s "discriminatory" actions cost the company a “valuable business opportunity” on the project.

Mathis & Sons was the associate construction manager during the development of the KFC Yum! Center, and says its portfolio includes work on the Muhammad Ali Center, the Park DuValle mixed-income development and the University of Louisville’s Nucleus project.

At issue in the lawsuit is a state certification process for firms owned by women and minorities. Mathis & Sons and Maureen Mathis claim in court documents that Walsh Construction – a company involved in building both bridges -- agreed in late 2012 or early 2013 to hire Mathis for work on the project, as long as it retained its minority-owned status.

Walsh and the Walsh-affiliated WVB East End Partners declined to comment on Mathis' assertion.

A state inspector recommended last spring that Mathis remain a “disadvantaged business enterprise,” or DBE, according to the lawsuit filed last Friday in U.S. District Court in Louisville.

But Mathis alleges three cabinet employees disregarded the inspector’s recommendation and instead sent a letter – using the inspector’s name – asking the state’s DBE committee to strip the certification. The cabinet’s refusal to re-certify the company was based on “racial animus toward African Americans,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit alleges the Transportation Cabinet “intentionally discriminate(s) against African American-owned businesses with regard to DBE certification, giving preference to a different class of minorities, namely businesses owned by white females.”

Mathis is asking for a jury trial and unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Anthony Mathis, president of Mathis & Sons, referred questions to attorney Glenn Cohen, who was out of town on a family matter this week and didn’t return email and phone messages.

Chuck Wolfe, a Transportation Cabinet spokesman, said the Cabinet doesn’t comment on pending litigation. “Our response will be filed with the court at the appropriate time,” he said.

A Walsh Construction representative had no immediate comment on the alleged relationship between Mathis and Walsh.

Mathis claims in the lawsuit that the recertification is a “ministerial task which requires no subjective judgment or evaluation" and should have been performed in less than 30 days.

The lawsuit, however, says the Transportation Cabinet re-certified Mathis’ DBE credentials five months after its application, and by that time Walsh had filled the position. In addition, the company and Maureen Mathis “lost other foreseeable business opportunities that would have been available to it in the normal course of business with Walsh on the Bridges Project.”

The three employees of the cabinet’s Civil Rights and Small Business Development Department named as defendants in the lawsuit are Shella Jarvis Eagle, a department employee; Tyra Redus, the department’s executive director; and Melvin Bynes, the department’s DBE program liaison officer.

The bridges work includes two construction projects. Indiana is responsible for work building a new span between Prospect, Ky., and Utica, Ind., and the approach roads on both sides of the river. Kentucky is in charge of the downtown work, including a crossing next to the Kennedy Bridge.

Kentucky selected Chicago-based Walsh to build the downtown portion, and Indiana selected a group that includes Walsh for the eastern project.

Kentucky’s goal is for women- and minority-owned firms to receive 8 percent of the downtown expenditures; Indiana’s goal is 9 percent.

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