Fenty's friend's firm got millions after D.C. ended contract

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

The D.C. Housing Authority cut a check on Christmas Eve for $2.5 million to Banneker Ventures, the firm at the center of the D.C. Council probe into recreation construction projects, despite the council's unanimous vote earlier last month to terminate a contract with the company owned by a friend of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's.

The holiday payment, disclosed at a Friday hearing, angered council members, who questioned whether the Fenty administration had once again circumvented the legislative body. Some council members said the payment was illegal. Fenty's aides said the check was for services rendered by Banneker and its subcontractors. The council vote, they said, ended work by the firm.

Friday's hearing was the sixth that the council has held on the contracts awarded to firms with ties to Fenty (D) last year to build more than a dozen parks, recreation centers and ballfields. Council members had been looking forward to questioning Sinclair Skinner, Fenty's friend and former paid campaign worker. But he was a no-show, and the focus quickly turned to the $2.5 million payment.

Debra Toothman, chief financial officer at the housing authority, testified that she expressed discomfort with approving the payment to Banneker on Christmas Eve and without contacting the council. She said the agency's policy is to make payments on the first and 15th of the month. Toothman said Acting Housing Authority Director Adrienne Todman said the only approval needed had already come from the D.C. Housing Enterprises, the development arm of the housing agency.

Council members said they were in awe of the recent events, considering the ongoing investigation and the council's Dec. 15 vote to remove Banneker as manager of the construction projects. The vote effectively terminated Banneker's base $4.2 million contract and the agreements with several subcontractors that the firm selected to complete $82 million in construction.

"In all respects, this looks highly questionable," council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said.

The council probe began in October, when members learned that the Fenty administration routed millions through the independent housing authority to complete the projects, a process that skirted council approval of contracts that exceed $1 million. The management contract went to Banneker, a firm owned by Omar Karim, Fenty's friend and fraternity brother. Banneker selected subcontractors, including Liberty Engineering and Design, owned by Skinner.

Todman and other witnesses, including Valerie Santos, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told council members that the $2.5 million covered work performed by Banneker, consultant Regan Associates and 12 subcontractors from September through November. They said the payment was a fair way to end the contract. David Jannarone, director of development in Santos's office, said it was "the right thing to do."

Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and others said someone should have contacted the council, particularly member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, which is leading the investigation of the contract.

"The reason you didn't make a phone call is because you knew he would raise hell," Brown said.

Council members repeated concerns about the relationships among Karim, Skinner, also a fraternity brother of Fenty's, and members of the mayor's administration. Jacquelyn Glover, who oversaw the contract with Banneker on behalf of the deputy mayor's office, once interviewed with Banneker and approved the invoices that allowed the payment.

Jannarone and Skinner worked together last year to donate a city-owned fire engine and ambulance to a town in the Dominican Republic, a contribution that is under investigation.

The council had issued a subpoena for Skinner to appear at Friday's hearing. Thomas said in an earlier interview that Skinner was served in front of his office.

A. Scott Bolden, Skinner's attorney, said in an e-mail that Skinner was never served. "Secondly, Chairman Thomas' ongoing investigation is unnecessary and irrelevant at this juncture in that the contracts under investigation have been disapproved by the DC Council -- what else is left for the Chairman to uncover and at what expense to the public fund?"

Housing authority officials testified that Bolden and housing authority attorneys hammered out the agreement to be paid $2.5 million based on invoices and a promise that the agency would not be liable for the subcontracts.

According to Toothman, the check cleared Thursday, the eve of the council hearing.

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