In a Reversal, Brimmer Scraps Skybox Lease
By Yolanda Woodlee and David A. Vise
D.C. financial control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer yesterday withdrew approval of a $625,000 lease of a luxury suite requested by Mayor Marion Barry for the D.C. Sports Commission at the new MCI Center arena.
Brimmer's actions were prompted by an outraged congressional leader's threat to block the deal and by angry city residents who called to voice their displeasure.
Brimmer, who had approved the lease on the condition that the suite be used to promote city business and tourism, said he changed his position to quell the growing protest. Brimmer spoke yesterday with Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who had written a letter saying he was "shocked and outraged" that Brimmer had approved a deal that would add to the perception that the District is poorly run.
"In my view, the city of Washington D.C. is struggling to overcome a well-deserved reputation as a poorly-managed municipality in which city officials waste taxpayer dollars with regularity," Faircloth wrote to Brimmer. "I regret that your decision to approve this lease of luxury seats at MCI Center may contribute to that perception."
In a late afternoon news conference, Barry (D) said the luxury suite -- which contained 12 seats, two remote-control televisions, a wet bar, a lounge area and a private restroom was intended for use by the D.C. Sports Commission rather than by him.
"The skybox is not my personal box at the arena," Barry said. "It was never intended for my personal use. In fact, my use of the skybox was pretty far down on the list of circumstances under which the box would be used. The box was intended primarily to be used for marketing the city as a venue for sports events and economic development."
Barry accused The Washington Post of giving the impression that the box was intended for his use.
"The Washington Post in its zest and zeal to harm me personally has instead harmed the city," Barry said. "I am outraged that The Post has misstated, mischaracterized and misreported the use of the suite."
Barry, who appoints the members of the Sports Commission and serves as its chairman, called Brimmer on Nov. 6 to request expedited approval of the skybox contract, which had been sent to the board months earlier. The two men discussed the issue by telephone again the next day. Brimmer formally granted approval in a letter addressed to the mayor on Wednesday, and he wrote to the mayor yesterday rescinding his approval.
Before sending the second letter, Brimmer personally informed Barry of his decision yesterday at the control board's headquarters, where the mayor was attending a meeting on another subject.
"I pulled him out of the meeting and talked about it," Brimmer said. "He understands the reason why it was necessary."
Brimmer said he received a flood of calls at the control board's offices and at his home from upset residents who read about the lease in yesterday's Post.
"There is a wildfire raging over the issue, and to end the concern, I canceled the lease," Brimmer said. "I believe it is still a legitimate tool of economic development. It is being misunderstood, and it is distracting from the basic purpose."
Two members of Brimmer's board yesterday criticized the chairman, saying he did not have their support when he granted initial approval for the contract.
"It was discussed in our meeting on Wednesday that we didn't agree with it," board member Edward A. Singletary said. "Brimmer had already made the decision. He chose to approve it without the board. I hope the city doesn't believe that our judgment collectively was that bad."
Added a second member, Joyce A. Ladner: "I understand it's not tax money, and I also understand it's a city in crisis. It's a serious problem of representation and imagery. This is an issue that people can understand. This doesn't represent my values."
The Sports Commission's primary function is the management of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and the D.C. Armory, two facilities whose revenue is projected to exceed $6.2 million in the current fiscal year. Sports Commission member Linda Greenan appeared with Barry yesterday to stress that commission revenue, and not District tax dollars, would be used to lease the $125,000-a-year suite.
Faircloth disagreed with Brimmer's notion that leasing the box was a "justifiable public investment" and said he would use his authority as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District to block the deal. Faircloth, who has been a strong supporter of the control board, also threatened to cut the board's budget or the mayor's spending by the $625,000 value of the five-year lease.
Brimmer said he spoke this week with Abe Pollin, owner of the city's professional hockey and basketball teams and the arena, about giving the District free use of a suite. But Pollin informed him that city officials had not asked for free seats when the arena deal was negotiated.
Although the District invested about $70 million in land acquisition, Metro station improvements and other changes, a Pollin spokesman said that the sports mogul felt no obligation to provide free seats because the arena was built primarily with private funds.
Brimmer said the city's Sports Commission would explore other ways, "including private-sector contributions," to pay for the controversial box seats at the new arena. He said, however, that the effort would not involve the use of taxpayer funds or revenue generated by facilities operated by the District government.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) questioned the validity of the contract, saying multiyear contracts first must be approved by the council.
She also said Sports Commission funds could be used to help the city's beleaguered general fund if the control board approved the transfer.
"The council recommended taking a $3 million transfer to the city fund to help with other city spending priorities, but the control board did not accept that recommendation," Patterson said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company