D.C. voters deserve answers on contract probe before election

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 14, 2010

District voters trying to decide whether the candidates they are inclined to support in the Sept. 14 Democratic primaries are, in fact, the candidates they think they are will be rendered a disservice this year. Some voters may discover after completing their ballots that they bought a pig in a poke.

That's because the independent investigation conducted by Robert P. Trout into million-dollar contracts awarded to firms with ties to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration won't be completed until well after the polls close.

In fact, by the time Trout's findings are published, the only thing left for some voters could be a large dose of buyer's remorse.

It didn't have to turn out this way. Here's the scoop.

Last October, the D.C. Council learned that Fenty's administration had funneled millions of dollars in government contracts through the D.C. Housing Authority, thus circumventing a city law requiring a council vote on contracts exceeding $1 million. The council also discovered that deals had been given to contractors and subcontractors with personal and political ties to Fenty. I wrote at the time that the story carried a whiff of something that is disagreeable to the nose.

For nearly six months, a joint special investigation by four council committees stumbled and bumbled through hearings on those suspect contracts. The results were meager: mostly theatrical bombast from posturing members on the dais, plenty of artful dodging by reluctant witnesses and precious little else of substance.

Only Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), who is chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who is chairman of the government operations committee, seemed to know what they were doing. Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), then chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, preferred to pontificate; Kwame Brown (D-At Large), chairman of the Economic Development Committee, didn't seem able to make up his mind about what he thought; and Michael Brown (I-At Large) demonstrated his inability to interrogate witnesses.

By the time it dawned on the legislators that they were in over their heads and needed a professional to conduct a special inquiry into the charges of malfeasance in the Fenty administration, precious time had been lost.

The probe now underway by Trout, who is working as special counsel pro bono, has been hampered by uncooperative witnesses, Thomas told me in an interview this week. He specifically cited Omar Karim, owner of Banneker Ventures, the firm that received the contracts; and Sinclair Skinner, owner of Liberty Engineering and Design and a Banneker subcontractor, as two who have not fully cooperated.

Karim and Skinner are close friends of Fenty.

The resistance to Trout's probe should disturb voters interested in learning the truth. It has reached the point where on Thursday, the council unanimously approved emergency legislation sponsored by Thomas authorizing Trout to petition D.C. Superior Court to compel Karim to provide testimony and documents relating to Liberty Law Group, another firm he owns and operates. Karim, according to Thomas, refused to answer questions about Liberty Law Group during his Aug. 5 deposition.

But the clock is ticking for the voters.

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