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In D.C., the 'shady deals' that weren't

Tuesday, March 15, 2011; A20

A THEME OF Vincent C. Gray's successful mayoral campaign last year was his questioning of his opponent's integrity. Exhibit A in his argument that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) ran a suspect administration was the awarding of contracts for park and recreation projects to firms with ties to the mayor. "Pay to play," "rigged contracts" and "shady deals" were among Mr. Gray's choicer assertions. Now, rather belatedly, come the results of an exhaustive investigation that exonerates Mr. Fenty. Will we hear apologies from Mr. Gray (D), or any of the former mayor's other accusers?

"Our investigation uncovered no wrongdoing on the part of the Mayor," the report made public Monday concludes. Robert Trout, the attorney commissioned by the D.C. Council to investigate the contracts awarded two years ago, reports that the Fenty administration diverted money from the parks department to a subsidiary of the independent D.C. Housing Authority not, as was alleged, to avoid council oversight but rather out of "a sincere desire" by administration officials to expedite completion of long-awaited public projects.

Indeed, as the 258-page report pointedly noted, the Fenty administration only reverted to the use of another agency - a practice deemed "lawful" and "consistent with prior practice that predated the Fenty administration" - when the D.C. Council thwarted plans for then-schools construction chief Allen Lew to manage construction of the park and recreation centers.

There's more. The selection of Banneker Ventures, owned by Fenty friend Omar Karim, as part of a team to manage the projects was based on "reasonable grounds . . . on the merits." As to Mr. Fenty's controversial removal of the chair of the housing authority, the report concluded the action was not motivated by a desire to silence a critic but out of a desire for different leadership.

The report found problems in the procurement process. It faulted the city for not negotiating better prices and failing to provide proper oversight, including overuse of a firm owned by another friend of Mr. Fenty, Sinclair Skinner, that was ill-equipped to do the work and which resulted in waste to taxpayers. The report recommended that the U.S. attorney further review Mr. Karim's and Mr. Skinner's dealings with subcontractors, but none of the report's referrals involves Mr. Fenty or officials in his administration.

The report, 18 months in the making, largely supports the version of events initially outlined by Fenty administration officials and put forward during what seemed like endless council hearings. That there was no hurry by the council to get the report completed before last September's critical Democratic primary adds to the unfortunate impression that concern about the contracts - which amounted to $4.5 million and not the $82 million bandied about - was mainly a political contrivance to undermine Mr. Fenty. A main architect of the controversy was council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), whose standing to judge others' ethics is somewhat in question given unanswered questions surrounding his own nonprofit organization.

Many factors contributed to Mr. Fenty's loss at the polls, not least his inability to effectively address criticism and his aversion to gladhanding. But the unfounded charges relating to the recreation contracts from Mr. Gray and others played a substantial role.

Mr. Gray issued a statement late Monday thanking Mr. Trout but making no comment on Mr. Fenty's vindication.

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