D.C. to seek curbs on housing authority, parks transactions

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The District's Office of the Chief Financial Officer would be prohibited from transferring any funds to the D.C. Housing Authority and its subsidiaries for 90 days, under emergency legislation to be introduced Tuesday.

The Department of Parks and Recreation would also have to notify the D.C. Council of any transactions of $75,000 or greater, under a bill drawn up by council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

The legislation stems from the council's investigation of an agreement in which the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) transferred millions of dollars to the housing authority to build parks, recreation centers and ballfields.

The arrangement circumvented council oversight and authority to approve contracts in excess of $1 million. The housing authority also awarded contracts for the construction projects to firms with political and personal ties to Fenty.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has instructed his staff to end the transfers "until the matter is resolved," said David Umansky, Gandhi's spokesman.

Gandhi's instructions and Thomas's legislation could put a snag in Fenty's efforts to improve the city's park system. Fenty, sometimes with a council member at his side, has broken ground on several of the projects. Only one ballfield has been completed.

Attorney General Peter Nickles has deemed the transfer unlawful and said that future contracts should go to the council for approval. He said that any contracts already awarded are "legal and binding," which annoyed several council members.

Nickles said that the administration will cooperate but that "the legislature can't micromanage the executive." He also said that reporting transactions of $75,000 or greater could prove "incredibly burdensome, with all the paper that's going to have to flow. If [Thomas] wants more paper, we'll give him more paper."

Thomas, chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, said the council's oversight powers supersede concerns about delaying construction of the recreation facilities.

"This is just government at its worst," he said. "We can't get caught up in the fact that neighborhoods have been promised things."

The legislation is one of three measures that Thomas plans to introduce Tuesday involving the council's recent disputes with the administration.

The council had questioned $82 million in contracts for a dozen projects. But City Administrator Neil O. Albert testified at a hearing Friday that the $50 million construction of the Walker Jones Education Complex, which opened in August, and the $33 million Deanwood Community Center, to be completed next year, had also been done through transfers to the housing authority.

Banneker Ventures, a firm owned by a Fenty fraternity brother, was named program manager in all of those projects and picked the subcontractors, according to testimony Friday.

Thomas also plans to introduce a resolution that would give his committee the power to issue subpoenas to force the Fenty administration and the housing authority to turn over documents and to force witnesses to testify about the transferred funds and contracts.

At the hearing Friday, council members said they were upset that some officials did not appear, particularly Larry Dwyer, who runs one of the housing authority's development arms, D.C. Housing Enterprises.

In addition to the transfer and subpoena measures, Thomas will also introduce legislation that addresses Fenty's recent reappointment of Ximena Hartsock as interim director of the parks and recreation department.

Fenty signed an executive order to keep Hartsock in place for 180 days while he seeks a replacement. The mayor reappointed her after the council had rejected her in a 7 to 5 vote.

The bill would amend city law so that "a nominee shall not serve as an acting subordinate agency head . . . or in any hold-over capacity" if rejected by the council.

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