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Veteran's role in Ross firm examined in federal contract

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Deborah Deasy | Pine Creek Journal
Jay Harris, project manager with Sota Construction Services, is overseeing Phase 1 work on Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Richland. Work this month included moving an old dairy barn about 7 feet onto a new foundation. The barn will be turned into a café and library for students.
Ernie Sota from Sota Construction, speaks before the groundbreaking and wall busting ceremonies for the Locomotive Lofts Tuesday July 17, 2012, in Lawrenceville.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and an Air Force Reserve judge advocate are investigating a Ross construction company that won a lucrative contract by claiming to be owned by a disabled veteran.

The Air Force awarded the $1.5 million construction contract to Battalion LLC, a company that federal records show has two employees and an address in Ross. One of the losing bidders, Connecticut firm Douglas P. Fleming LLC, filed a complaint accusing Battalion of being a front for Sota Construction Inc., a non-veteran-owned company in Bellevue.

Federal records show Jason Harris owns 51 percent of Battalion LLC, and Ernie Sota owns 49 percent. Harris works for Sota's company, Sota Construction, where he recently served as manager on a Sota project for Chatham University.

“We're going to check this company out,” said Tom Leney, executive director of small business programs at the VA.

Battalion is among 6,000 firms verified by the VA as a Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned Small Business, which entitles the firm to special consideration for federal contracts. Last year, the VA alone handed out $17.5 billion in contracts to such businesses, Leney said.

Harris did not return calls to his Sota Construction office or the number listed for Battalion LLC. A woman who identified herself as Harris' wife said he was unavailable to talk Friday night. Sota did not return calls Thursday. A receptionist at Sota Construction's Bellevue headquarters told a reporter who visited Friday morning that Sota was in the building but unavailable. Harris was not in the building, she said.

Battalion, whose website includes the motto “Demand the strength of an army,” is registered at 2010 Kinvara Drive in Ross. The building is owned by another Sota company, Green Development LLC, according to Allegheny County property records.

The address is inside a tightly packed, low-rise office park just down the hill from Ross Park Mall. A concrete walkway leads past a small fountain and neighbors that include a mortgage broker and business consulting firm.

The only sign outside Battalion's address is a small placard for One 80 Real Estate Services, which is registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State at the same Bellevue address as Sota Construction. One 80 Real Estate manager Diana Lynn did not return a call.

“That would be problematic,” Leney said when the Tribune-Review described Battalion's address.

The VA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office released audits in recent years warning that the verification program is ripe for fraud.

Leney defended the verification process as “rigorous.”

“We believe in veteran-owned small businesses. We don't want to damage the integrity of the program,” Leney said.

Oversight includes unannounced site visits for many firms and checks to make sure the firms' owners are not employed by their partners in another business. Such an arrangement could signal that the veteran-owned business is just a cloak to allow the other firm to get preferential treatment — an arrangement the VA and veterans advocates refer to as “rent-a-vet,” Leney said.

Battalion lists three projects on its website: the 911th Airlift Wing's Reserve Lodging Facility in Coraopolis, the South Hills Retirement Residence in Mt. Washington and the Marriott Residence Inn in Cranberry. Sota Construction also lists all three projects on its website.

Sota has received $8.4 million in federal contracts, all from the Department of Defense, according to a federal spending database. The database lists no federal contracts for Battalion, which formed in April 2012, according to State Department documents.

The Air Force contract awarded to Battalion on Aug. 26 is to replace the exterior finishes and windows on two buildings, according to a synopsis of the project on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

Fleming, a disabled Navy veteran, said the preferential treatment given to veteran-owned businesses is meant to allow companies such as his to survive while employing other disabled veterans who might not be able to hold down a job elsewhere.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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