By Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 16, 2010; B02
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.
A superior court judge had threatened to fine Skinner $5,000 if he failed to attend Thursday's hearing, and $1,000 a day for each he did not show.
At one point, Trout tried to get more information about how Skinner picked Abdullahi Barrow, a professional engineer, to be his partner in Liberty.
Skinner, who said he could not remember, said his firm would not be allowed to operate and compete without a professional engineer. "I cannot do any of the technical [work] alone," he said. "Anything I do has to be under the supervision of an engineer."
With advice from Bolden, who sat by his side at a witness table, Skinner declined to answer questions about $600,000 in payments from Liberty Law, a firm owned by Karim, to another Skinner firm, Liberty Industries. He said the payments, which Trout said were made with several checks from September 2008 to this March, were not related to the parks contracts.
The payments were a revelation, giving more confirmation to the incestuous relationship of the business dealings between Skinner and Karim.
Skinner testified that he was a "volunteer" conducting "community outreach" for Banneker before he started Liberty Engineering and Design and carried a business card with Banneker's logo. He also said Liberty and Banneker are in the same office suite on 12th Street NW.
Trout asked Skinner to explain why Banneker hired Liberty in May 2009 when an advertisement soliciting bids for the project did not appear in The Washington Post until the next month. Skinner said he knew there was a "sense of urgency" to get the parks completed but did not know the reason for the timing of the ad.
But the bulk of the hearing was devoted to whether the city got its money's worth.
Skinner testified that he vacations with friend David Jannarone, who oversaw the city's development projects and negotiated Banneker's management fees.
The Hill Rag was the first to report that Liberty, in turn, farmed out its work because it did not have the certification to complete site surveys on the city projects. The markups were as high as 500 percent.
Skinner said any markups were caused by the "cost associated with directing, coordinating and managing services."
He said the subcontractors' names did not appear on the invoices and work because Liberty was responsible for the end product. He likened it to Alcoa producing an aluminum can for Coca-Cola. He said "Coke" still appears on the can though Alcoa actually made the can.
Skinner, who owned a dry cleaning business before working on Fenty's campaign in 2006, twice used the analogy of cleaning shirts to explain the markups.
He said that he might charge a customer $1 to clean a shirt but would go to a wholesaler to clean shirts for him for 50 cents or to another for 25 cents. Maybe, he said, the 25-cent wholesaler leaves "dirty collars."
He said he would have to do extra work to get the shirts on par with those of the 50-cent vendor.
"I might spray those collars," Skinner said.