Gray, Fenty scramble for ethical high ground in D.C. mayoral race

By Mike Debonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; B02

What's in a "crony"?

For D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, that word is the centerpiece of a campaign assault on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

His slogan is "Character. Integrity. Leadership." His Web site has a page devoted to "Restoring the Public Trust." He hasn't been shy about slinging words such as "sweetheart deals" in stump speeches, fundraising letters and candidate forums.

"It seems like every day there's another story in the newspaper about mismanaged public dollars and shady deals," the Web page reads.

Just as telling was last week's heated Fenty-Gray debate on WPFW (89.3 FM). Toward the end of an hour-long battle that digressed more often than not into ethical recriminations, host Jonetta Rose Barras asked the dueling Democrats to ask each other a question.

Fenty asked Gray why he won't give a yes-or-no answer to whether he'd keep Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee if elected.

Gray asked Fenty: "Why did he support $82 million in contracts being given to his fraternity brothers through a surreptitious and clandestine and circuitous route through the Housing Authority?"

That is the WMD in Gray's ethical arsenal: parks and recreation spending directed through the Housing Authority to be distributed, without council scrutiny, by firms run by Fenty allies.

Fenty has not apologized and maintains that the contracts were legal. Investigations by the inspector general's office and an independent attorney appointed by the council are ongoing and unlikely to be completed before the Sept. 14 primary. No one has alleged that the work hasn't gotten done on time. But there are questions about the way the contracts were awarded and the price the city is paying for the work.

Meanwhile, the Fenty campaign has been preoccupied with painting Gray as a creature of the old school, a feckless bureaucrat who as human services director in the early 1990s helped lead the city into fiscal ruin.

But Gray's been able to flip that script. Behold: "What's taking us back again is the cronyism that we've seen," he said on WPFW. "Contracts being given to fraternity brothers, other elements of this that people would have associated with yesteryear."

It doesn't help that Fenty has done nothing to distance himself from the "cronies" of whom Gray speaks. Fraternity brother Omar Karim, whose Banneker Ventures oversaw the parks spending, proudly appeared at Fenty's State of the District address and at the Deanwood Rec Center groundbreaking. Contract recipient Sinclair Skinner is a fixture of the Fenty campaign. And Fenty has publicly praised Ron Moten -- the Peaceoholics founder and bare-knuckle "brawler" who benefited from millions in city contracts under Fenty -- as a "great Washingtonian."

But Fenty has been unwilling to quietly absorb the allegations, for good reason. His re-election strategy hinges on racking up huge margins -- 80 percent or more -- west of Rock Creek Park. And if there's anything that gives those voters pause, it's talk of cronies and contract steering.

Fenty is openly trying to knock Gray off his ethical high horse, to paint him as something other than Mr. Character-Integrity-and- Leadership. Take, for instance, "Fencegate" -- the revelations that Gray erected an unpermitted fence around his Hillcrest home and the related news that he engaged a subsidiary of a friend's development company to do minor repairs on the house and to plan for a major renovation. Fenty's closest adviser, Attorney General Peter Nickles, played a key role in impelling bureaucrats to have the fence taken down.

And now Nickles has alighted on the awarding of the District's lottery contract, one of the city's most lucrative. The long-running drama is soaked in old-school, backroom politicking. On Wednesday, Nickles asked Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby to investigate.

What is undisputed is this: Gray refused to schedule a vote on the original contract award, which included a company affiliated with Warren Williams, a close Fenty ally. By the time the deal passed the council, more than a year later, a relatively unknown businessman named Emmanuel Bailey had a key role in the contract.

A series of Washington Times articles raised questions about Bailey's selection and qualifications. And Nickles has pointed to ties between Gray and Bailey, whose mother worked for Gray when he was at the Department of Human Services. Outside WPFW-FM's Adams Morgan studios last week, Moten said he had seen e-mails proving a deeper connection between Gray and Bailey. But neither Moten, Nickles, the Times, this reporter nor anyone else have come up with anything since.

Inside the studio, Fenty launched his anti-Gray salvos by saying, "I just find it interesting when Vincent Gray talks about ethics or cronyism."

Will voters?

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