Contractor defends dealings with D.C.

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009; B01

A fraternity brother of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's on Thursday denied pulling strings to win a multimillion-dollar construction contract this year, but in testimony at a D.C. Council hearing, he acknowledged ties to city employees involved in the procurement process.

Omar Karim's testimony before the council was highly anticipated after four committees joined in October to probe the Fenty administration's decision to transfer millions of dollars to the independent D.C. Housing Authority, which later awarded the contract to Karim. Under the contract, Karim's company managed the construction of parks, recreation centers and ballfields.

More recently, council members have delved into the selection of Banneker Ventures, a company Karim started in 2005, to manage more than a dozen projects worth at least $82 million.

Banneker competed against 12 firms for the parks contract in March. In his opening statement, Karim said he did not participate in "any inappropriate, unethical or unlawful actions to obtain the contract."

But council members asked Karim about the amount of contact he had with city officials before Banneker won the contract.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) honed in on e-mail exchanges between Karim and David Jannarone, director of development in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Jannarone and his team handled the routing of capital funds to the Housing Authority.

Cheh read the e-mails aloud. One had Jannarone writing "great work" to Karim.

Karim testified that the e-mails referred to Banneker's previous, unrelated work on the Walker Jones Educational Complex in Northwest Washington.

Karim also tried to clear up confusion over Jacquelyn Glover, a program manager who was supervised by Jannarone. Glover was on the selection committee that picked Banneker for the parks contract, and she was in charge of overseeing contracts for the deputy mayor's office.

Karim testified that Banneker mistakenly listed her as a company employee when it bid on a project in 2008. Karim told council members that Glover interviewed with Banneker but did not take the job. "It was clearly a mistake on our part," he said.

Thursday's hearing was the fifth in a series of meetings about the contracts. Under city law, contracts exceeding $1 million require D.C. Council approval.

Attorney General Peter J. Nickles has said the contracts were unlawful but are legally binding. The Fenty administration is submitting a bundle of contracts to the council to approve retroactively. Nickles said in an interview that 15 projects are stalled because of the controversy.

Karim's testimony was highly anticipated. He and consultants Thomas Regan and Sean Regan did not attend a hearing last week despite being subpoenaed. On Thursday, Karim told council members that he and his attorney, A. Scott Bolden, could not attend last week.

Bolden sat at his side while he testified Thursday.

Bolden and council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) got into a heated exchange about Sinclair Skinner, another fraternity brother of Karim's and Fenty's and owner of Liberty Engineering & Design, a subcontractor on the parks projects.

The council invited Skinner to attend Thursday's hearing, but he was a no-show. Bolden, who also represents Skinner, said Skinner was not subpoenaed to appear. Thomas said he would issue a subpoena and would hold another hearing.

Karim, however, appeared to distance himself from Fenty (D) and Skinner. He said he has a "professional" relationship with Fenty but added minutes later: "I generally don't have business conversations with the mayor."

Fenty has described Karim as a "friend and fraternity brother." In a previous interview, the mayor said that he and Karim's brother were classmates at Howard University Law School and that he met Karim then. In the case of Skinner, Karim said: "He's my social friend, but we don't socialize. I'm married. He's single. I have a daughter. He does not."

Skinner, Karim, Fenty and Bolden are all members of the same fraternity. Karim said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) is also a member.

Brown, a onetime ally of Fenty's, later told Karim that he knows Karim is familiar with Skinner and Fenty because of the fraternity. Brown used some relatively harsh language at one point during the hearing: "It makes it look like the fix is on."

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