Correction to This Article
A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the city official with whom Sinclair Skinner is acquainted sat on the contract selection panel.

Mayor Fenty needs to open up about questionable D.C. contracts

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

MAYOR ADRIAN M. Fenty (D) insists he was not involved in the process that awarded District contracts to firms headed by his friends. He cites the competitive process in which 13 bids were reviewed by a five-member board. He proudly points to the refurbished parks and recreation centers that are the result of that work. Why, then, did Mr. Fenty retaliate against an official who dared to question the arrangement?

"It's the mayor's prerogative," is the only explanation that's been offered for the abrupt removal last fall of Bill Slover as chairman of the D.C. Housing Authority Board. Mr. Slover, as The Post's Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman reported, had raised questions about the payment arrangement for Banneker Ventures to oversee the public improvements projects. In addition to a $4.2 million management fee, the company, headed by mayoral friend Omar Karim, received a second fee payment -- a 9 percent markup of fees charged by each subcontractor.

City officials defend the fees as commensurate with the risk the company was taking in insuring the work of the subcontractors. But experts we consulted called it generally bad business for a public project, saying it can create a perverse incentive for higher costs.

Other unsettling questions have surfaced in connection with the $100 million in parks and recreation projects. One subcontractor, headed by close mayoral ally Sinclair Skinner, didn't have city certification to undertake the work it was hired to do and farmed it out -- at considerable markup -- to a firm in Maryland. On April 15, Mr. Skinner testified that he vacations with the city official who oversaw the project, including setting the fees. An attorney for Mr. Karim and Mr. Skinner says that nothing illegal or unethical occurred and that what took place is "the art of the deal," acceptable in government contracting.

Some context is important. The parks contracts in question account for a very small portion of the work undertaken during Mr. Fenty's tenure. Overall, he has improved the awarding and managing of public contracts. Work is performed on time and, according to several contracting professionals we interviewed, the process has become more open to public view, even though a needed overhaul of city procurement practices has been pending for many months before the D.C. Council.

But with regard to the contracts in question, Mr. Fenty needs to be more forthcoming. In particular: Why did he get rid of someone who was asking questions that apparently needed to be asked?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company