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.
R. Donahue Peebles, a developer who has considered challenging Fenty in the 2010 mayoral race, has spoken openly about how political networking during Marion Barry's reign as mayor helped him land his first major real estate deal. After critics accused Peebles of benefiting from cronyism in the mid-1990s, the developer became infuriated and relocated to Miami for a decade before turning his attention back to the District, where the Fenty administration has twice rejected his company's bids for city projects.
Since his return to Washington, Peebles said, at least two of Skinner's associates suggested that he hire Skinner, who they said could help him win District projects and gain access to the mayor and his top aides. Peebles said the associates told him that Skinner's fee was $10,000 to $20,000 a month.
Peebles said Karim approached him after an appearance on the Howard campus in 2007 and told him that Fenty was seeking to empower a new group of minority builders, including Karim. As African Americans, Karim and Skinner could benefit from city requirements that developers partner with minority-owned companies.
Karim, Peebles said, told him that "if I wanted to get to do a development deal with the District of Columbia government under Fenty, I'd have to do business with them and their circle, this new inner circle. He gave me this whole spiel about how it was a new day and how the old guys' day was up. Essentially, the message was I was going to need him."
Peebles said he was angered by what he considered a "flagrant pay-to-play overture." He rejected Karim's offer, he said, and refused to hire Skinner.
Another developer, who renovates commercial and residential properties in the city, said Skinner told him that he represented Liberty Law, owned by Karim, which could provide lobbying services for $25,000 a month even though it is not a registered lobbyist. "They wanted a big part of it up front: $200,000," said the developer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does not want to antagonize the Fenty administration.
The developer said that when he asked Skinner what services he would provide, Skinner told him, "You need some stuff, don't you?"'Because of their expertise'
Fenty declined to talk in detail about his relationships with Skinner and Karim. In a brief interview as he left a news conference last month, he said his administration has awarded contracts properly.
Bolden, speaking for Karim and Skinner, acknowledged that his clients have been real estate consultants, but he said: "They're consultants because of their expertise. It has nothing to do with access to the mayor. [To imply otherwise] devalues their educational background, their entrepreneurship, their love of this city."
He added: "They're Howard graduates. They're fraternity brothers. They're friends with the mayor. Maybe they like doing business together. Anything illegal, inappropriate about that?"
Karim's rise as a developer has been swift, and his portfolio consists mostly of projects awarded by the Fenty administration. Karim, 35, worked for a small developer before starting Banneker Ventures LLC during Fenty's campaign for mayor. Since 2005, Karim, his wife and his firm, which has offices two blocks from the White House, have contributed $10,000 to Fenty campaigns.
In addition to holding parks contracts now under investigation by the special counsel, Karim's company was on the team the Fenty administration chose for the $700 million redevelopment of the area around the Sursum Corda housing complex near North Capitol Street.
Banneker Ventures has played various roles in city projects, sometimes joining with other developers to win a contract and sometimes being hired to manage construction projects, a role that allowed Banneker to hire subcontractors who are also the mayor's friends.
On one project, after Banneker Ventures was hired as a planning consultant, the city later awarded the contract for the project to one of Karim's partners. Karim also worked for the city reviewing developers' proposals on two other projects.
Peter Nickles, the D.C. attorney general and a longtime Fenty adviser, said he sees nothing unusual in the frequency with which Fenty's friends have obtained city work. "They're young, African American guys trying to get involved . . . in the business of the city," he said. "You got a prime contractor, and the prime contractor shows it can get things done. . . . The prime has people it trusts."
Another Fenty friend who has prospered is Keith Lomax, a substitute teacher at Mackin High School in the 1980s, when Fenty was a student there. Lomax's construction company has received nearly $16 million in D.C. contracts since Fenty took office, records show. Bolden, also Lomax's attorney, said the contractor would not comment for this article.Skinner's ascent
Within Fenty's circle, no one else has risen as dramatically as Skinner, who was broke and drove a dented sedan when he went to work for the campaign.
At Skinner's dry cleaning shop on Georgia Avenue, he put up a poster of himself shaking hands with Sherman Hemsley, the actor who played dry cleaner George Jefferson in "The Jeffersons," the TV sitcom known for its "Movin' On Up" theme song. But dry cleaning was not Skinner's way up.
In 2003, about the time his Georgia Avenue property was foreclosed on, Skinner closed a second location, on Rockville Pike, leaving behind a pile of clothing that Montgomery County officials had to return to its owners, said Ralph L. Vines, an administrator in the county's Consumer Protection Office. By 2006, Skinner owed the District $17,238 in rent for a spot he had leased at Judiciary Square, according to a settlement in which Skinner agreed to pay the city the back rent.
Skinner's finances improved during Fenty's campaign, which paid him nearly $70,000, according to city records. Sixteen months after the election, Skinner formed Liberty Engineering and Design, which Karim's company hired as a subcontractor on the parks renovations. Invoices show that Liberty has charged Banneker Ventures about $700,000. The council investigated Banneker's contract after discovering that the administration had awarded it without the required legislative approval.
Skinner has courted controversy throughout Fenty's time in office.
Although he has no job in the administration, Skinner, working with a Fenty aide, orchestrated the donation of a city-owned firetruck and ambulance to a town in the Dominican Republic without the knowledge or approval of the D.C. Council, according to a council investigation. The probe described Skinner as "well-connected" and concluded that "inside connections and access . . . resulted in a loss of value to the District government."
Kappa Alpha Psi, the fraternity to which Skinner, Karim and Fenty belong, publicly thanked Skinner for organizing a $37,000, taxpayer-funded reception last August celebrating the fraternity. Nickles declared the use of city funds improper and told the fraternity to reimburse the District.
Despite such incidents, Skinner and Fenty have remained close. At a birthday bash for Skinner atop Macy's downtown rooftop in 2008, hundreds of well-wishers danced to live go-go music as the mayor took out his cellphone to snap photos of the birthday boy.Against gentrification
Fenty met Skinner at Howard when the future mayor was a law student and Skinner was studying engineering. At the time, Skinner later told campaign colleagues, he would deliver meals to Fenty, who would hole up in his room for marathon study sessions.
From his earliest years in Washington, Skinner demonstrated a penchant for activism, winning election in 1998 to Petworth's Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Lenwood Johnson, a commissioner and friend, said Skinner opposed white professionals migrating to the Northwest Washington neighborhood, if only because they could raise property values and drive out longtime residents and businesses. "He'd say, 'Why are they moving over here?' "
Joe Englert, who owns taverns in the District, was planning to open another in Petworth in 2006. Skinner confronted him, asking, "Why would a white man open a business on Georgia Avenue?" said Englert, who is white. "It was hard to respond, it was so outrageous."
As president of a business association, Skinner published the Georgia Avenue Defender, which in 2005 lampooned council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) as "Gramzilla," slayer of black-owned businesses. During his campaign, Fenty rebuffed demands by Graham and others to disavow or fire Skinner.
After the election, Fenty's aides tried to find Skinner a government post, said two former administration officials and a former campaign volunteer. Fenty, meanwhile, on several occasions promised that his friend would not get a job. Asked last month about the administration's efforts on Skinner's behalf, the mayor said only that "he doesn't have a role in my administration."
Skinner started his engineering firm and another company, renting space downtown and in an unmarked house with bars on the windows on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
By then, Skinner was close to Warren Williams Jr., who owned Club U, a nightclub on U Street that was shut down in 2005, during the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), after a patron was fatally stabbed. Warren Williams also owned an apartment building where tenants complained of rat infestation and no heat. In 2008, council members cited the stabbing and the building when they criticized Fenty's choice of a team that included Warren Williams to manage the D.C. Lottery.
During Fenty's campaign, Warren Williams, at Skinner's suggestion, joined Karim at Banneker Ventures, Williams said. After the election, the developers won several D.C. projects, including managing reconstruction of Walker-Jones Educational Complex and work on redeveloping a theater in the Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast.
The administration and the D.C. Housing Authority picked Banneker Ventures as "master planning consultant" for the redevelopment of the Park Morton housing project in Petworth. After Karim and Warren Williams split up in 2008, the District chose Williams's company, the Warrenton Group, as co-developer of Park Morton. Williams, in an interview, said his company was chosen because of its competence, not its political connections.
Ben Soto, Fenty's campaign treasurer, said the mayor's ties to Skinner and Karim are rooted in a common commitment to improve the city. "He likes people who have a sense of urgency," Soto said. "Omar and Sinclair have that." Their bond, Soto said, trumps any political embarrassment. "When Adrian knows you have his back, it's a hiccup."
Although the friends have benefited from minority contracting rules, access to the mayor does not ensure winning bids, Soto said. The District twice rejected proposals from Karim's company, said Sean Madigan, a city spokesman.
Former mayor Barry (D), now the Ward 8 council member, said Fenty's friends have turned up in D.C.-sponsored projects often enough to raise questions.
"There's nobody in this government more Afro-centric than I am, but you can't hide behind that," said Barry, a longtime advocate of minority set-asides. "The problem I have is the circle is so small. The same ones over and over again. It's not fair."
Lomax is among the Fenty friends helped by Banneker Ventures. Banneker hired Lomax's RBK Construction for at least $3.5 million of the $16 million in D.C. contracts that RBK has received since Fenty took office. That's up from $1 million in city work that RBK got during Anthony Williams's administration.
The D.C. inspector general and the city auditor in May began investigating whether Lomax, a Prince George's resident, falsely used a house in Northeast Washington as a business address to improve his chances of winning city business. Lomax declined to comment.
The investigation, which is continuing, apparently has not dampened Fenty's friendship with Lomax. On a recent Saturday, the pair attended a Georgetown-Duke basketball game, where they posed for photos with President Obama.
Nor have Skinner's troubles made the mayor rethink their relationship. One night last month, as Fenty trolled for votes in the Northeast neighborhood of Burrville, there, following the mayor as he knocked on doors, was Sinclair Skinner.