TALLAHASSEE (AP) — A federal lawsuit alleges Florida discriminates against minority businesses in awarding contracts, including the hiring of a white-owned public relations partnership to promote awareness of the Census among blacks.

The Florida Black Chamber of Commerce and four black-owned public relations firms that sought the federally funded Census awareness contact sued the state, Gov. Charlie Crist, the winning bidder and its subcontractors on Thursday.
The Moore/Ketchum Partnership has hired a black-owned subcontractor, ESP Media Corp., but that's not sufficient, said Leslie Steele, president of Steele Communications Group of nearby Midway, one of the plaintiffs.

“We can do and be the primary contractors and do this business very well to a target audience that we touch and reach every day,” Steele said at a news conference Friday.

The plaintiffs and their lawyer said they are seeking a court order to block the contract and alleged one member of a selection panel was biased. They also want a court ruling on whether former Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida program remains in effect and, if so, whether Crist has complied with it.

The suit alleges his administration hasn't done so because contracts with black businesses have dropped by 88 percent between 2003 and 2009. Crist took office in 2007.

When Bush abolished affirmative action for contracting and university admissions a decade ago, he replaced it with One Florida. It encourages state officials to contract with businesses owned by minorities and women but without set-asides or quotas.

“One Florida provides for a number of measures for the state agencies under the head of the governor to ensure that minority communities, minority subcontractors, contractors … are able to secure pieces of the pie,” said Chuck Hobbs, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the governor's office “is reviewing the legal merits of the complaint and options that are available to us.”

Ivey also forwarded a copy of a letter from the governor's general counsel, Robert R. Wheeler, to state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who had questioned the Census awareness contract last month.

“The governor's charge to the staff was to ensure the process would be fair and the results be transparent,” Wheeler wrote. “To be sure, those goals were met.”

Wheeler noted that a panel of “five diverse evaluators representing state and local government, businesses and private citizens” reviewed the bidders' proposals and scored each on a point system.

The state awarded several Census awareness contracts focusing on different minority groups from a $2.1 million grant.

Moore/Ketchum was awarded a $420,000 contract focusing on blacks including African and Caribbean Americans and African immigrants.

The suit argues selection team member Hue Reynolds, the Department of Education's deputy director for communications, should have recused herself due to “professional affiliations” with several firms and individuals seeking the contract. Her scores for the black-owned firms were significantly different from those of the other panel members, the suit alleges.

Reynolds did not immediately return a call seeking comment.