Report clears Fenty of contract steering charges, raises concerns about allies

By Tim Craig and Mike DeBonis
Monday, March 14, 2011; 10:45 PM

Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty did nothing wrong when his administration doled out city contracts for parks and recreational centers two years ago, according to the findings of an 18-month investigation made public Monday. But the probe found that two of the mayor's close associates may have overcharged the city for work and had unexplained financial ties to each other and to subcontractors.

The report, authorized by the D.C. Council and conducted by the law firm Trout Cacheris, recommends that U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. investigate the dealings of Omar Karim, whose Banneker Ventures won a bid to manage $87 million in contracts, and Sinclair Skinner, who co-owns an engineering firm, Liberty Engineering and Design, or LEAD, which received subcontracts handed out by Banneker.

"Multiple ties," both personal and professional, existed between Karim and Skinner, but neither would answer detailed questions about the extent of their relationship, investigators said. LEAD, hired by Banneker to do surveying and engineering work, had to hire outside firms and employees to complete its work, the report found, marking up its cost significantly - as much as 400 percent for site surveys.

When the council and its pro bono attorneys tried to unravel the controversy, Skinner and Karim were uncooperative. "The witnesses' claimed failure of recollection was so extensive and so complete that it was unworthy of belief," the report said. "Karim and Skinner essentially thwarted the investigation, and their performance left us with the clear impression that they believed they had something to hide."

The law firm, headed up by Robert P. Trout, concluded that there is evidence of "undisclosed conflicts of interest, or worse, an unlawful scheme" between Skinner and Karim.

But in a news conference outside the John A. Wilson Building hours after the report's release, Skinner said he was "vindicated" by the report's findings and lashed out at D.C. Council members who, he said, used unfounded allegations to pursue a political vendetta against Fenty (D).

"What they've done is have a smear campaign," Skinner said, wearing a crimson jacket bearing the logo of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, to which Karim and Fenty also belong.

The report states that there was "no wrongdoing" by Fenty in the controversy that helped unravel his political career in the months leading up to last year's Democratic primary.

Fenty's opponent in the primary, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), used the controversy to try to paint the former mayor as unethical. Gray called Fenty "surreptitious, clandestine and circuitous" because his administration awarded the contracts via the D.C. Housing Authority. That meant the council did not have a chance to vote on the spending.

But the report concludes Fenty routed the money through the Housing Authority because of a "sincere desire . . . to expedite the completion" of new recreational amenities for residents.

Gray also frequently accused Fenty of improperly issuing more than $80 million in contracts, but the report notes the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development directed only $6.2 million to the housing agency. Only $4.4 million was in turn sent to Banneker.

In a statement released through an aide, Gray said he " trusts that the council will examine all findings and recommendations and act accordingly." He said he will review the report thoroughly and "will work with the council to implement any associated remedies."

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