False Fronts

Fullerton Industrial Supply isn’t much to look at. From the street, the Lincoln Park storefront appears to be vacant, with a couple of gang symbols smudged on the windows. The front door, with the occupant’s name pasted in tiny letters, is locked even in the middle of the day.

Inside, random boxes of hardware and janitorial supplies rest on tables or sit on the floor. Fullerton owner Lauren Bellagamba emerges from a back office, but she is reluctant to talk about her business, which on paper looks far more prosperous than this modest headquarters would suggest.

Yet records show that this nondescript business plays a central role in a shell game perpetrated by Chicago’s biggest general contractors and the public entity that awards them hundreds of millions of dollars for taxpayer-financed construction.

The city of Chicago has certified Ms. Bellagamba, who is Latino, as proprietor of both a minority- and woman-owned enterprise. That makes her very popular with the area’s largest construction companies. Since 2008, they have hired Fullerton 22 times on projects awarded by the little-known Public Building Commission of Chicago, which oversees construction contracts for schools, libraries, parks, police and fire stations and other municipal developments.

The PBC requires general contractors to spend at least 24 percent of their project dollars on minority firms and 4 percent on women-owned businesses. To qualify, these businesses must fulfill a “commercially useful function,” which means actually performing, managing or supervising the work involved. Brokers do not qualify.

Commission contracts show more than $10.6 million in payments to Fullerton for plumbing, electrical and other construction materials over the past four years. But Crain’s can find no evidence that the company maintains a supply warehouse or delivers materials to job sites. In fact, based on PBC records and numerous interviews with other subcontractors, Fullerton appears to be nothing more than a pass-through broker.

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