D.C. Council ends contract with firm of Fenty's friend

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to strip Banneker Ventures, a company owned by one of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's fraternity brothers, of its controversial contract to manage the construction of several parks and recreation centers after council members spent weeks probing the deal's legality.

The council rejected Fenty's request to compromise and approve projects in the design and preparation phases, mostly completed by Banneker and its subcontractor Liberty Engineering & Design, a firm owned by another fraternity brother, who is also a former paid campaign staff member of Fenty's.

Under the emergency legislation, the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, the city agency in charge of building and repairing schools, athletic fields and playgrounds, will take over construction management of 10 facilities. The remaining three projects will be handled by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, said that the new plan "is not ideal" but that the council had to "clean up a mess not of our own making."

A. Scott Bolden, an attorney for Banneker owner Omar Karim and Liberty owner Sinclair Skinner, said his clients are considering their legal options. "Last time I checked, a deal is a deal," he said.

Banneker had also selected several other subcontractors to build the facilities. The firm and its subcontractors will have to turn over to the city all documents, such as architectural drawings, a requirement sponsored by council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Attorney General Peter Nickles said the council's action could create a legal mess.

In October, Nickles concluded that the contracts should have been submitted to the council because city law requires legislative approval of contracts exceeding $1 million. But he said the signed agreements were "legally binding."

Nickles also said he was baffled by the council decision because members dismissed an initial plan last year to allow the modernization office to extend its duties to the recreational projects.

At the time, council members said the agency, headed by construction guru Allen Y. Lew, should focus on improving the schools.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said Tuesday that the use of Lew's agency would be a "one-time" fix to finish the construction of the long-awaited recreational facilities.

In a statement late Tuesday, Fenty said he applauded the council's decision to have Lew lead the effort. "Lew's world class track record speaks for itself, and reflects my commitment to completing each project according to the most rigorous standards of timeliness and quality," Fenty said.

The details

Council members learned in October that the Fenty administration had agreed to transfer millions of dollars in capital funds from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the housing authority, which awarded the management contract to Banneker. The company was to be paid a fixed fee of $4.2 million for its management services and a 9 percent fee on subcontractors.

Karim has denied any inappropriate contact with those involved in the procurement process, but council members said there were too many irregularities in the award and implementation of the contract.

Although the council's vote stripped Banneker's management contract, the firm will remain to manage the Deanwood Recreation Center and Walker Jones Educational Complex -- projects well under construction.

Other action

Council members also voted 7 to 6 to remove the deputy mayor from the housing authority's board of commissioners and put a resident in that seat. With four other mayoral appointments on the panel, a council majority agreed with sponsor Barry that the executive pulled too much weight on the nine-member board.

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