July 29, 2012

BANNEKER VENTURES officials spent much of the fall of 2007 putting final touches on a proposal for a residential and retail project on Florida Avenue NW near the Shaw-Howard U Metro station. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro and owned the land, had designated Banneker one of three finalists. So it is puzzling that just before it was to make its formal presentation to WMATA, Banneker agreed not to take the lead in the deal but instead defer to another member of the team, developer Chris Donatelli. Even stranger is how Mr. Donatelli reversed course and abruptly dropped out of the project.

This mysterious series of events is sketched out in e-mails that have been turned over, under subpoena, to an attorney hired by the Metro board to investigate the agency’s handling of the development and the possible role played by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), then a member of the board. Until now, those questions have centered on what happened after Banneker’s team, without Donatelli, won the competition for development rights. The investigation was prompted by allegations that Mr. Graham tried to steer the contract to a company he preferred by persuading Banneker to forgo the deal. In exchange, Mr. Graham allegedly offered to support the separate bid of a Banneker principal for a D.C. government lottery contract. Mr. Graham has denied any wrongdoing and has pointed out that no one has alleged any financial motive for him to favor one contractor over another.

The newly obtained e-mails, provided to the investigation by Omar Karim, president of Banneker, raise the possibility that Mr. Graham may have been involved in the process even before the contract was awarded. A Dec. 9, 2007, e-mail laying out a to-do list in advance of the group’s WMATA presentation includes “Councilmember Graham (can we schedule this mtg week of 12/10?).” It’s unclear if a meeting — which Mr. Donatelli was asked to arrange — took place, but something occurred to prompt an e-mail on Dec. 16, the day before the group was set to appear before WMATA staff, from Joshua Kern, then with the District Development Group (DDG), the third member of the Banneker team.

The e-mail, titled “Recommended Strategy,” begins with Mr. Kern arguing that not presenting to WMATA seems “unprofessional and the worst possible option for us.” It suggests that all three companies appear but that they respectfully request that Banneker be allowed to withdraw and that the Donatelli firm assume the role of managing partner. “This approach seems to address everyone’s concern,” Mr. Kern wrote, later noting: “We should reach out to Councilmember Graham to let him know our plans and we should immediately begin revising the presentation.”

Within hours, Warren Williams of Banneker sent a note to Mr. Karim: “Has Chris [Donatelli] confirmed that us dropping out will get Graham’s support.” Later that day, according to Mr. Karim and others involved in the events, Mr. Donatelli informed members of the team that he had instead decided to drop out; DDG and Banneker scrambled to redo the presentation.

Mr. Karim believes that Mr. Graham — driven by dislike of Mr. Williams and wanting another firm to win the Metro contract — persuaded Mr. Donatelli to drop out. Mr. Donatelli, a supporter of the council member who has done other projects in Ward 1, declined to comment for this editorial. Mr. Williams, supporting Mr. Karim’s view, says that he received a phone call on the morning of the WMATA presentation from Buwa Binitie, then with the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, telling him that Mr. Graham was unhappy that the group was vying for the project. “What are you doing? This project isn’t for you,” Mr. Williams says he was told in the call. Mr. Binitie told us that no such call, which was previously reported by the Washington Times, occurred.

Although the Banneker team won the development rights, the Florida Avenue project was never built. Mr. Karim faults what he has characterized as Mr. Graham’s unrelenting animus and obstruction. Mr. Graham has denied that allegation; in an e-mail to us he said that the project collapsed because Banneker wasn’t up to the job and that its partners withdrew for the same reason. He declined to be interviewed about other issues raised in these newly obtained e-mails.

Was Mr. Graham, as the e-mails suggest, involved even at the early stages of a contract that was supposedly being awarded on merit, as judged by Metro’s professional staff? And if so, why? We hope that the independent WMATA investigation or the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which reportedly is taking its own look at some of these events, will provide answers.