D.C. Council hires lawyer Robert P. Trout to probe recreation contracts

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010; B05

In an escalation of its investigation into million-dollar city contracts awarded to firms with ties to the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the D.C. Council has appointed well-known defense lawyer Robert P. Trout to further probe the contracts.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who has led the special inquiry into contracts for recreation centers since October, said Friday that he wants an independent examination of how the Fenty administration awarded the contracts without council approval.

The appointment of Trout, who will work pro bono, comes days after the council censured Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) following an independent investigation by Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett, who concluded that Barry personally benefited from a $15,000 contract he secured for a former girlfriend. The council also unanimously voted to refer the public corruption allegations against Barry to the U.S attorney's office.

Depending on Trout's conclusions, the council could take the same approach with the contracts investigation, said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "We're talking about tens of millions of dollars in contracts that were involved in this effort," Gray said Friday at a news conference at the John A. Wilson Building. "The testimony is stunning, shocking. . . . There's a lot of questions associated with this thing."

Four council committees launched a joint special investigation in October after learning that the Fenty administration had transferred millions of dollars to the D.C. Housing Authority to build recreation centers, ballfields and parks -- a process that skirted a law that requires council approval of contracts that exceed $1 million. Banneker Ventures, a firm owned by Fenty friend and fraternity brother Omar Karim, won a $4.2 million contract to oversee and select subcontractors for $82 million in construction.

Attorney General Peter Nickles has said that the contracts should have been submitted to the council for approval, but he deemed them legal and binding. In an interview Friday, Nickles said Thomas's goal is to malign Fenty (D). "Obviously, that's where this is headed," he said. "That's the motivation. It's political motivation. . . . It just seems to me it's being viewed by Thomas as a tit for tat."

Nickles said that he has provided documents to Thomas, the office of the inspector general and the office of the D.C. auditor, and that he would cooperate with Trout's investigation.

One of Trout's most recent clients was former Louisiana congressman William Jefferson, who was convicted of corruption after $90,000 in marked bills were found in a freezer in his home. On Friday, Trout said that he had been hired by the Montgomery County Council in the early 1980s to investigate corruption within the county's liquor-distribution operation, and concluded that there was no wrongdoing.

A. Scott Bolden, attorney for Karim and subcontractor Sinclair Skinner, said he expects Trout to draw the same conclusion in the contracts investigation. "While there may have been mistakes made, there was no criminal wrongdoing," he said. "It begs to question what the Trout investigation or Trout report will bring. Not one scintilla of evidence has been uncovered that someone or some agency engaged in criminal conduct."

Skinner, also a friend and fraternity brother of Fenty, has not testified before the council despite invitations and a subpoena to appear. Last week, Superior Court Senior Judge Stephen F. Eilperin ordered Skinner to appear before the council on March 24 or risk a $5,000 fine for non-appearance on that day and another $1,000 a day for continued no-shows.

Thomas said the investigation, which he hopes will wrap up in the next 45 days, could have ended earlier if witnesses, especially Skinner, had been more cooperative. "I don't know about you, I can't be left at the altar but so many times," he said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company