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.
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.
“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.”