Sinclair Skinner testifies again about D.C. contract work

Sinclair Skinner, right, with lawyer A. Scott Bolden, was the only witness at Wednesday's hearing.
Sinclair Skinner, right, with lawyer A. Scott Bolden, was the only witness at Wednesday's hearing. (Jahi Chikwendiu/thewashington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

Businessman Sinclair Skinner, whose engineering company made about $900,000 last year for work on city parks and recreation centers, continued to demonstrate a poor recollection of his own business dealings in a second appearance Wednesday in a special D.C. Council probe into parks contracts.

Skinner, a friend and fraternity brother of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's (D), appeared to be unfamiliar with an organizational chart of Liberty Engineering and Design and could not confirm whether he was the "business development director" at the top of the document. "If it was business-related, non-technical, it was me," said Skinner, who testified at an earlier hearing that he twice failed an exam to become a professional engineer.

The 40-year-old entrepreneur, who left behind a failing dry cleaning business to work on Fenty's 2006 mayoral campaign, frequently said Wednesday that he would have to talk to his business partner Abdullahi Barrow, a professional engineer, to get information.

Skinner's answers appeared to frustrate and amuse Robert P. Trout, the high-profile lawyer leading the council's probe pro bono. "We're going to try to talk to him ourselves," Trout said, chuckling. "We'll save you the trouble."

Skinner was the only witness Wednesday. He first appeared before the special council committee April 15 after a D.C. Superior Court judge threatened him with hefty fines: $5,000 for failing to appear on the date and $1,000 a day until he showed up.

The special committee has been investigating the contracts since October, when council members discovered that the Fenty administration had transferred nearly $100 million to the D.C. Housing Authority to build parks, recreation centers and ball fields.

The transfer allowed the Fenty administration to circumvent council approval of contracts exceeding $1 million, which were awarded to companies with ties to Fenty. The council's probe has focused on a $4.2 million contract to Banneker Ventures, a company owned by Omar Karim, a friend and fraternity brother to both Skinner and Fenty. As project manager, Banneker had the authority to select contractors and subcontractors to build the facilities. Liberty was one of its first picks.

Trout's questions dug into how Banneker chose Liberty, because the firm had little capacity to perform the site surveys and other services required to complete the job. Much of the work was done by Liberty subcontractors based in Virginia and Maryland, according to Skinner's testimony.

According to documents to which Trout referred and Skinner's testimony, Liberty was hired by Banneker to do some consulting and site surveys on the parks project in May 2009, a month before an ad that solicited a "request for qualifications" for the work appeared in The Washington Post.

Liberty did not submit its response until days after the deadline in July. "To my best recollection, [Banneker] had an extension," Skinner said.

In its response, Liberty listed that it had "20 technical and non-technical employees," Trout said. On April 15, Skinner testified that his company has three employees, including himself and Barrow.

Although Trout said that it appeared to be a misrepresentation, Skinner said that the company is too small to keep employees on staff and that the listing probably referred to contractors and subcontractors who would be hired to complete the work on the city's recreational facilities. He also said one person might have held multiple positions.

On April 15, questions from Trout and council members centered on whether Liberty might have overcharged for its services because invoices showed that subcontractors' costs were significantly less than what Liberty charged. Skinner said Wednesday that he wanted to clear the record and explain that Liberty's charges included additional services performed and that he would never inflate prices.

Although he is not be a professional engineer, Skinner said he was instrumental in completing the work. "I have great leadership skills so that at the end of the day, things get done," he said.

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