Mr. Gray's aspersions

Sunday, August 29, 2010

D.C. COUNCIL CHAIRMAN Vincent C. Gray, who according to a Washington Post poll published Sunday is leading in the race to become Washington's next mayor, is basing his bid to unseat Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in large part on issues of integrity and character. Mr. Gray's charges are serious, and they deserve serious examination.

Mr. Gray concedes that under Mr. Fenty the city has made progress in education and public safety. But, in increasingly strident tones, he accuses Mr. Fenty of running a less than honorable administration. "Pay to play," "rigged contracts" and "shady deals" are just a few of the terms that Mr. Gray has hurled at Mr. Fenty leading up to the Sept. 14 primary.

What is the basis for these assertions? The central exhibit in Mr. Gray's case against the mayor -- in fact, as far as we can tell, pretty much the only exhibit in his case against the mayor -- is $82 million in contracts for work on parks and recreation centers, a small fraction of which went to companies with ties to Mr. Fenty. Key figures in the controversy are two friends of the mayor: Omar Karim of Banneker Ventures and Sinclair Skinner of Liberty Engineering and Design. The contracts were awarded by a subsidiary of the independent D.C. Housing Authority and bypassed required review by the D.C. Council. When council members became concerned about the arrangement last year, they terminated the contracts with the firms of Mr. Karim and Mr. Skinner and launched an inquiry, eventually hiring attorney Robert P. Trout to conduct an investigation that is ongoing.

There are legitimate questions to be asked. Was there undue influence in the contract process? Did the city get a good deal? How were subcontractors selected, and why pick one that lacked certain city certification? We were particularly troubled by the mayor's decision to demote the board chairman of the D.C. Housing Authority who says he raised objections to what he saw as an unusual fee arrangement. It is unfortunate that Mr. Trout won't complete his report before voters go to the polls.

But to date, after hours of testimony before the council, there has been no evidence that Mr. Fenty misused his office to enrich his friends. And a number of important facts have been overlooked or distorted in the heated political debate. For example:

-- The implication that Mr. Fenty turned to the housing authority to steer contracts to his friends is hard to square with this: Initially he wanted the work overseen by the council and managed by Allen Y. Lew, the city's respected construction expert in charge of school facilities. Only after Mr. Gray and the council inexplicably barred Mr. Lew from undertaking the work did Mr. Fenty turn to the housing authority, which has done such work on behalf of D.C. government agencies for more than nine years and had established a good track record. He says that he did so because the projects had languished for years and he wanted to get them rolling. Ironically, after pulling the plug on the contracts last year, the council turned the work over to Mr. Lew.

-- The suggestion that Mr. Fenty was trying to hide the contracts from the council is difficult to square with this fact: Well before the city entered into the 2009 memorandum of understanding for this work, his Office of the Attorney General was urging the housing authority to submit its contracts to the D.C. Council. A June 16, 2008, memo from then-interim attorney general Peter J. Nickles reiterated the view taken by his predecessor of the need for council review of contracts worth more than $1 million and those that are multi-year. The attorney general has no authority over the housing agency and so the matter remained in dispute. Clearly, city officials could and should have acted on their own to secure council approval. But if the idea was to hide the work how do you explain such memos -- or the photo of council members, including Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who chairs the parks committee, at the Rosedale Recreation Center groundbreaking on Sept. 30, 2009, wearing a Banneker construction hat?

-- There was a competitive bidding process. Banneker, in partnership with the Virginia firm of Regan Associates, was selected to manage the contracts over 12 other firms that submitted proposals. The selection was made by a panel, not one person, and it was unanimous. Three members of the panel were members of Mr. Fenty's administration; two were from the housing authority. No losing bidders filed challenges. A selection team of Banneker and Regan officials picked Liberty over three other submissions.

-- Mr. Fenty's friends did not receive $82 million. According to Fenty campaign officials, the contract to Banneker/Regan was for some $5 million over three years; they ended up getting $1.5 million with Banneker receiving $763,0000. The contract to Liberty was for $1.2 million, of which it received $964,000. The city made additional payments to settle work with subcontractors. Mr. Karim and Mr. Skinner are pressing claims for more money.

-- All the work was done on time, under budget and without complaint about quality.

Finally, voters ought to consider this: The work on the recreation centers constituted a tiny portion of the contracts let by the city. In 2009, the city was managing $924 million in capital contracts and $711 million in operating contracts. By most accounts, they were awarded and managed professionally.

The District has come a long way since the sad days of the Marion Barry administration when whom you knew mattered more than what you could do. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Mr. Fenty's predecessor, did much to bring integrity to the process, and Mr. Fenty's choice of the highly respected David P. Gragan as chief procurement officer is widely seen as continuing those reforms. If Mr. Gray has evidence to the contrary, we hope that he will produce it before Election Day.

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