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Friends share in D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's good fortune

By Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; 10:09 AM

Before Adrian M. Fenty was elected D.C. mayor in 2006, Sinclair Skinner lived in a worn, two-story brick home on Georgia Avenue NW above his dry cleaning business, a venture that collapsed in financial ruin.

But Skinner had one valuable asset: his relationship with Fenty (D), then a D.C. Council member. They had known each other since they attended Howard University in the 1990s and belonged to the same fraternity.

As field director of Fenty's mayoral campaign, Skinner spent hundreds of hours with the candidate knocking on doors across the city. After Fenty's victory, Skinner started an engineering firm that soon landed work on at least three city projects, according to public records.

In addition, the records show, Skinner's firm was a subcontractor on the rebuilding of city parks and recreation centers -- work that paid about $700,000. Skinner, 40, bought a Porsche and a handsome $654,000 brick house a few blocks from the mayor's house in the Crestwood neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

Skinner and Omar Karim, another Howard graduate and fraternity brother, are at the center of a coterie of Fenty friends who since the mayor's election have traveled from the political margins to the center of power and influence, often helping one another along the way.

On Friday, the D.C. Council appointed a special counsel to investigate the Fenty administration's awarding of $86 million in construction projects at city parks and recreation centers without the council's approval, which is required on contracts exceeding $1 million. The investigator is expected to examine whether the city showed favoritism to the mayor's friends in awarding the deals.

The mayor's friends were relatively unknown before Fenty's rise: engaged in neighborhood activism, working for a developer or running a nightclub or a landscaping business. After Fenty became mayor, the men prospered, starting or expanding companies that have repeatedly landed development and construction projects awarded by the D.C. government.

Karim's roster includes a $4.2 million contract to oversee renovation of at least 16 parks and recreation centers. The Fenty administration did not seek council approval for that contract but now says it should have done so.

Politicians have long cultivated circles of lawyers, developers and lobbyists who, in turn, thrive on access to government's highest levels. But Fenty's friends have risen from obscurity at a pace that has captured the attention of the political and business establishments and fostered an image that is seemingly at odds with Fenty's campaign themes of reform and transparency.

"They're suddenly doing so well at the trough of government," said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). "There's this network where they all help each other. They all get rich together. It makes you wonder what's going on. What we know is they're friends of Fenty."

Karim and Skinner declined to comment through their attorney, A. Scott Bolden. Karim recently testified at a council hearing on the parks contracts that he had done nothing wrong. Skinner has not responded to a subpoena from the council, contending that he was improperly served. Last week, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered Skinner to testify this month or face $1,000-a-day fines for each day he does not appear.

After Fenty's election, Skinner and Karim were not shy about mentioning their mayoral ties as they tried to attract business partners or obtain consulting work, according to five developers and consultants who spoke to the men about possible deals. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they fear retribution from the Fenty administration.

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