Election-year politics

Sunday, July 18, 2010

LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS remain about the District's disputed contracts for park and recreation center projects. But prospects for getting those questions answered are fading fast in the face of election-year politics. Case in point is the recent uproar over Attorney General Peter J. Nickles's decision to settle a claim by owners of a firm whose contract was canceled. It's hard to imagine a worse way to elicit information than that employed by D.C. Council members, whose principal interest seems to be embarrassing the administration.

At issue is Mr. Nickles's agreement, reached this month, to pay $550,000 to settle a $2.3 million claim by Banneker Ventures, a firm whose contract to oversee work at new parks and recreation centers was voided because proper council scrutiny and approval was bypassed. Banneker is owned by a friend of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and the council has commissioned an outside review into the circumstances that led to the company getting the city's business.

Months of hearings by the council were, at best, inconclusive, and now it appears that Robert P. Trout, the attorney conducting the council's probe, won't complete his work until after the Sept. 14 primary, in which the contracts have emerged as an issue.

Enter now the settlement; no sooner was the ink dry than Vincent C. Gray, the council chairman and mayoral hopeful, was calling for Mr. Nickles's resignation amid charges of "cronyism" and council members were demanding the attorney general's presence at a hearing they knew he couldn't attend. The fate of the settlement is uncertain, with the council last week directing Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi not to cut the checks. Caught in the middle, Mr. Gandhi is examining the city's options, even as A. Scott Bolden, attorney for Banneker, threatens to go to court.

It was no secret that Mr. Nickles was in talks with Banneker, and, once a settlement was reached, he advised Mr. Trout that he would make normally confidential documents about it available. Mr. Nickles has since followed up on that promise, providing to Mr. Trout and to council members "in the spirit of transparency and comity" relevant documents and a chronology of the events.

It remains to be seen if Mr. Nickles got the best deal for the city, but he makes a plausible argument that it was in the city's interests to settle to avoid the risk of much greater liability as well as the possibility of ongoing construction projects getting stalled in the legal dispute. A review of the documents that Mr. Nickles provided to us shows the city acceding to demands only for costs incurred by the firm, such as purchased equipment and leased office space. In negotiations, the city demanded a detailing of costs, challenged certain expenses, refused many demands, and insisted that payment be made and documented to subcontractors, some of whom are continuing their work for the city.

Mr. Nickles says that he consulted a number of officials but never Mr. Fenty. Indeed, if one subscribes to the theory that the attorney general is interested only in the mayor's political welfare, it's difficult to see how the decision to settle -- giving grist to the mayor's opponents -- fits the scenario.

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