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D.C. housing agency contracts that bypassed Council 'illegal'

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

The D.C. Housing Authority broke the law when it failed to seek the approval of the D.C. Council before awarding $82 million in contracts for parks and recreation projects, Attorney General Peter Nickles said Friday. The housing agency must submit the contracts to the council, amid complaints that most of the work went to firms with ties to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

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By law, contracts exceeding $1 million must be approved by the council. But Fenty (D) and his aides skipped that procedure when they used the Housing Authority as a development vehicle to renovate or build a dozen parks, recreation centers and ball fields. Several of the contracts, which were awarded in September, were well into eight figures, the highest at $16 million for the renovation of Rosedale Recreation Center in Northeast .

"I have made my position clear," Nickles said in an interview Friday. "The mayor agrees with me."

Nickles's opinion came late Friday in a letter to the interim executive director and the general counsel of the Housing Authority, after hours of political fallout for Fenty. Facing reelection next year, the mayor has been frequently criticized for doling out jobs and contracts to friends, fraternity brothers and other associates.

Several projects are underway, and one -- the $1.3 million Emery Ball Field in Northwest -- has been completed. Submitting the contracts to the council could prove problematic if the council rejects them.

"This was illegal. . . . This was not something that agencies can just do," said council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation.

Thomas said questions remain about possible favoritism and how and why the administration funneled millions of dollars through the Housing Authority.

Thomas and three other council members are holding a public roundtable on the matter Oct. 30. They have requested that members of the Fenty administration and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi appear.

According to a list compiled by the council, Banneker Ventures, a firm owned by Omar Karim, Fenty's fraternity brother and a campaign contributor, was named project manager on all 12 projects. Banneker is partnered with Herndon-based Regan Associates, which has campaigned heavily for the mayor's reelection bid. Two of the projects name the general contractor as RBK Landscaping and Construction, run by longtime friend Keith Lomax, who drew attention earlier this year by driving the mayor's city-issued SUV, in violation of city code.

Nickles dismissed some council members' concerns that the contracts went to Fenty's friends. "I have no reason to believe there was a problem with them. They were all competitively bid," he said. "The fact that the mayor has friends, has fraternity brothers and goes to a ball game [with them], that doesn't exclude someone from competing for a contract."

But Nickles's opinion on the legality of the process differed greatly from that of Fenty in an interview earlier Friday.

Fenty, a triathlete who has made improving parks and recreation a priority, shrugged off criticism, saying he was not involved in the selection of the contractors and that the contract process of going through the Housing Authority was not new. "The practice predates my administration," he said.

Fenty and Adrianne Todman, interim executive director of the Housing Authority, both appeared Friday at a ribbon-cutting for the renovated Fairlawn Marshall apartments in Southeast. They took questions from the media after the event.

Todman said the Housing Authority is governed by separate procurement rules.

Nickles said that is not the case. He pointed to a 1996 opinion on a similar issue that concluded that even a quasi-government agency, such as the Housing Authority, must get council approval for contracts above $1 million.

Todman said the authority's Board of Commissioners approves contracts exceeding $250,000. She said she thought Banneker Ventures was selected through a competitively bid "singular contract" to become the construction manager on all of the projects.

Dena Michaelson, the authority's spokeswoman, later said that Banneker competed against 12 companies in March. Several other firms, including RBK, were selected as general contractors and to do other jobs in the 12 projects. Michaelson said she did not know whether the commissioners voted or whether there was an internal selection for the smaller jobs.


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