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D.C. Council questions parks projects it didn't approve

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009; B01

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration has funneled at least $82 million to the D.C. Housing Authority to build a dozen parks, ballfields and recreation centers, a process that has circumvented D.C. Council oversight and awarded contracts to firms with ties to the mayor.

By law, the council must approve contracts that exceed $1 million. Last month, contracts for as much as $16 million went to various construction companies as part of the mayor's effort to improve the city's parks system.

Banneker Ventures, a firm owned by a Fenty fraternity brother, Omar Karim, is the construction manager on every project, according to a list of the projects compiled by the council. The general contractor on two of the projects is RBK Landscaping and Construction, which is owned by Keith Lomax, a friend of Fenty's who drew attention this year for illegally driving the mayor's city-owned sport-utility vehicle.

Four council members are requesting that City Administrator Neil O. Albert and other members of the administration who had oversight of the projects appear at a round-table meeting Oct. 30 to discuss the matter. Late Thursday, they sent the mayor a letter raising concerns about the process for awarding the contracts.

"It defeats transparency. Let me put it more strongly: It looks sneaky," council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said Thursday in an interview.

Fenty, a triathlete, has made recreation a priority for his administration, holding groundbreaking ceremonies for playgrounds, pools and dog parks nearly every other weekday during the summer. But the mayor's announcements, which some critics have described as little more than campaign events, did not correspond with the recreation capital budget, said council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation.

"I asked my staff, 'Why aren't these contracts matching up with the scope of work that was going through the committee?' " Thomas said.

Some talks with housing authority and parks officials this week led to the discovery of millions of dollars in projects that the council never approved. Thomas said it appears the money was taken from the Department of Parks and Recreation, given to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and then passed through the quasi-government agency that operates the city's public housing system.

Thomas said he wanted to know how Banneker received the 12 contracts last month. "There are some real concerns that one contractor could win competitive contracts 100 percent of the time," he said.

Herndon-based Regan Associates is teamed with Banneker in all the projects. Sean M. Regan and Thomas J. Regan, who head the real estate advisory firm, have contributed heavily to Fenty's 2010 campaign.

Dena Michaelson, a spokeswoman for the housing authority, said Thursday that she did not have information about the projects. She also said she did not know whether the contracts had been competitively bid.

But she said it is not unusual for city officials to route money through the housing authority for construction work. "They tap into us . . . to get the projects off the ground," Michaelson said. "We get projects going fast, and we keep costs low."

The mayor's office did not answer questions about why it went through the housing authority to build the facilities. Late Thursday, spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said in an e-mail: "The District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) is an independent entity with autonomous procurement authority. The Administration values its long standing partnership with the Authority, and defers to DCHA with respect to any statement about its procurement process."

The questioned contracts mark another controversy for the parks department.

The council, led by Thomas, recently rejected Ximena Hartsock as the mayor's pick to be the agency's director. She was the first Fenty Cabinet pick to not be confirmed.

Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) joined Thomas and Cheh in sending the mayor the letter about the recreation spending and calling for the round table.

The dozen projects stretch across the city. Among the largest contracts were $16 million for the Rosedale Recreation Center in Northeast, $15 million for the Barry Farm Recreation Center in Southeast and $12 million each for the Fort Stanton Recreation Center in Southeast and Kenilworth Recreation Center in Northwest.

Karim, whose firm managed the projects, did not return a call seeking comment. At one time, Sinclair Skinner, a campaign coordinator in Fenty's 2006 mayoral bid and also a fraternity brother, did community outreach work for Banneker.

Skinner has come under fire for his involvement in donating a firetruck and ambulance to a town in the Dominican Republic, and his role is being investigated by the Inspector General's Office and the council.

Under the Fenty administration, Banneker Ventures has become a major player in development. It is part of a partnership selected to build the long-awaited $700 million Northwest One New Communities project, which will replace the low-income Sursum Corda cooperative and Temple Courts housing complex.

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