D.C. parks contracts are legal after all, city official says

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said Monday that any past and current contracts awarded without the approval of the D.C. Council are "legal and binding," three days after he had said the D.C. Housing Authority broke city law by awarding $82 million worth of such contracts, most of them to firms with personal and political ties to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

The apparent reversal enraged council members already angered by what they see as the Fenty administration's continued disregard for the council's role in legislating and overseeing city agencies. Council members also criticized Nickles's judgment as the city's top legal official.

"That's classic Peter Nickles. This is just bad government 101," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who said the council could be forced to sue the Fenty administration to block the contracts.

Nickles's latest opinion came in a letter to the interim executive director of the D.C. Housing Authority, the agency that recently awarded a dozen contracts for the construction of parks, recreation centers and ballfields. The Fenty administration used the housing agency as a development vehicle for the projects.

City law requires that any contract in excess of $1 million be approved by the council. Officials with the housing authority, which is independent of the city government, did not think that law applied to its procurement process. The attorney general told housing authority officials Friday that the law did apply and that they should submit the contracts to the council.

But in an interview Monday, Nickles said his opinion should apply to "future contracts." He cited legal problems with nullifying past and current agreements and said the authority had a long-standing practice of awarding contracts without council approval. "They did not understand until the law was made clear to them," he said Monday.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, dismissed Nickles's explanation.

"What he's doing is backpedaling on his opinion Friday. They're trying to protect the people who have already received the contracts," Thomas said. "I guess we're just going to have to go to court."

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who consulted the council's general counsel, said he was "perplexed" and "puzzled" by Nickles's opinion. "For the attorney general to give a carte blanche green light to these questionable contracts, even before council hearings or any legislative action, is inappropriate and not in compliance with my reading of the law. If they are required to be submitted, we make no distinction between the past and the future. We expect to receive these contracts," he said.

Nickles said his opinion Monday "clarified" his opinion Friday. "They're perfectly consistent," he said. "The mayor's not happy. The council's not happy, but I'm following the law. This is not an easy job. I call them how I see them."

Four council members, including Brown and Thomas, are holding a public meeting Friday and have requested that City Administrator Neil O. Albert, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi and other members of the administration appear to explain how the contracts were awarded.

Banneker Ventures, owned by Omar Karim, Fenty's fraternity brother, was named construction manager on all 12 projects. His firm partnered with Regan Associates, a major contributor to the mayor's reelection campaign.

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