October 4, 2011

ON TUESDAY, WE told you an odd story involving the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) blocking a contract extension, recommended by civil servants, to a grounds maintenance company that had provided good work at a low price. What makes the story worse is that, while the city was holding up the extension to the Maryland firm that had provided the work, it was approving a one-year extension to a local, politically connected firm that was charging considerably more.

The head of that local company is Denise M. Shelton; we learned Tuesday that Ms. Shelton is a former supervisor in the D.C. Department of Corrections who was last in the news when in 1997 Post reporter Cheryl W. Thompson observed two city employees refurbishing her Spotsylvania home on government time. She was suspended and the inspector general concluded she had improperly authorized thousands of dollars in overtime pay for herself and her employees. “I am not commenting on that,” Ms. Shelton told us Tuesday. “Anything that was alleged, I was returned back to work and my name was cleared.” The Post later reported that she was reinstated by a court-appointed master in a separate class-action lawsuit who said the evidence against her was insufficient; her two employees, however, were let go when their contracts expired.

To recap: In 2009, the District government issued a request for proposals to handle grass-cutting and other grounds work that previously had been scattered among city agencies. Lorenz, the Maryland firm, submitted the superior bid and won a contract to handle Wards 3 through 8. For reasons we haven’t been able to discern, Wards 1 and 2 were given to Community Bridge Inc., Ms. Shelton’s company, even though its proposed price was considerably higher. This spring, the city’s Department of Public Works recommended that the contracts be extended, noting that “the District has achieved economies of scale (in terms of reduced pricing city-wide) and consistent service.” But Mr. Gray’s people intervened to block the extension to Lorenz. Then on Friday night, Lorenz received word that its services would no longer be needed and that it might not get paid for work it had performed in September. That decision was later reversed. (On Tuesday the D.C. Council approved a short-term extensionfor Lorenz.)

What could explain these events? CBI is a favorite of council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who is under investigation for financial transactions in an unrelated matter. It is represented by a lawyer and lobbyist who contributed to Mr. Gray’s campaign and whom Mr. Gray recently appointed to the Washington Metropolitan Airport Authority. It has been certified as a local, small, disadvantaged business enterprise, which under city rules entitles it to special consideration. But even with that factored in, under city bidding rules it should have fallen short, according to city officials knowledgeable about procurement procedures.

Mr. Gray’s staff said he wanted to find a company that would offer both a good price and local hiring. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, the mayor’s chief of staff criticized our editorial and said there was nothing nefarious about the events. He said it was within the mayor’s prerogative to decide whether to exercise the option and that Mr. Gray was mainly motivated by his commitment to help and foster local companies.

A memo written by a Gray staffer last spring about the Lorenz contract contained headings including “pros,” “cons” and “political consideration.” However, the Gray administration inked out every word in the text of this memo before releasing it under the Freedom of Information Act. If it has nothing to hide in this increasingly mystifying story, it should release the full text and other relevant documents. If it would rather not, the D.C. Council should insist.