Friend of D.C. mayor's denies misconduct over recreation construction contracts

By Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 16, 2010

Threatened with a $1,000-a-day fine for failing to testify in a special D.C. Council investigation, businessman Sinclair Skinner appeared Thursday and denied any wrongdoing in recreation construction contracts awarded to his and another firm with ties to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

But Skinner, a friend and fraternity brother of Fenty's, acknowledged that he is not certified to perform the engineering work on parks and recreation centers for which he said his fledgling firm was paid about $900,000. "I sat for the P.E. [professional engineer] exam twice, and I didn't pass," said Skinner, 40, who has an engineering degree from Howard University.

Skinner's testimony stretched over five hours, mostly under questioning by defense attorney Robert P. Trout, whom the council appointed as special counsel to investigate a $100 million parks construction project. The council learned in October that the contracts had been awarded without its approval.

Banneker Ventures, a firm owned by Omar Karim, a friend of Skinner and Fenty's (D), was awarded a $4.2 million contract and bonuses to manage the construction of the recreational facilities. Under its agreement, Banneker hired subcontractors, including Skinner's firm Liberty Engineering and Design.

Skinner said he does not cite his relationship with the mayor to land contracts: "I don't have to tell anyone that I know the mayor. . . . It's been pretty well covered."

He said his name has a acquired familiarity, prompting people to say, "I know that name from somewhere."

Skinner, who said he had a "childhood passion for engineering," spoke in vivid detail about growing up as a Boy Scout and shaping the mud in his back yard into dams. He said Fenty's 2006 win as mayor inspired him to fulfill his dream of opening an engineering firm.

But Skinner said he could not remember specifics surrounding the creation of his business, the thousands of dollars in invoices from a few months ago or his weekly interaction with Karim.

During his testimony, "I don't recall" became Skinner's refrain. People watching the hearing in the council chambers began murmuring and mouthing the words, quickly turning it into the catchphrase of the day inside the John A. Wilson Building.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said Skinner's testimony was distinguished by the number of times he could not answer Trout's questions. She described his testimony as the "most remarkable loss of memory and failure to recollect, almost to the extent where he needs medical assistance."

Skinner, who wore a dark suit and an Obama pin on his lapel, said he talks to the mayor "all the time" but never about business. As mayor, Skinner said, "the last thing you would want to talk about is business. . . . He's not that type of person."

During a 10-minute recess, Skinner and lawyer A. Scott Bolden stepped into the mayor's executive offices to talk. The mayor was not there.

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