It has such a nickel-and dime ring to it: the kickbacks of little men, as Hyattsville painting contractor Robert Lowry tells his story. Lunches where you could show off and order $50 bottlles of wine. Call girls provided in the drunk of the night. A fresh coat of paint for your house by day, a $1,000 payoff here and there.
But it is the kind of nickle-and-diming that was apparently done countless times over and grew into one of the largest monetary scandals in U.S. government history. The General Services Administration estimates its own employes are wasting $100 million in taxpayers' money; $66 million in stealing, the rest through non-criminal negligence. Federal grand juries are expected to indict on bribery and fraud charges some 50 persons, including GSA employes and the contractors and suppliers with whome they do business.
As some involved grew bold, they played for high stakes. One GSA employe under investigation is believed to have taken kickbacks totaling $300,000.
As the scandal unfolds, there are few revelations in the daily headlines for Lowry, given immunity in exchange for his testimony. One recent Sunday Lowry sat in his office-home on Annapolis Road near Bladensburg - the Redskins game blaring away on an upstairs TV set, being recorded for later viewing - and talked matter-of-factly about his past life.
"One building manager I met at a party in 1970 said to me, 'If you're a thief, I want you. I intend to steal $200,000 this year and if you want parts of it, come see me Monday morning.' I turned him over to another contractor. I was already doing enough myself that I wasn't all that proud of, and scratchin' my head trying to see how I could do any of it without going to jail anyway."
Lowry, 43, has eyes the color of faded jeans, and an incipient paunch on his otherwise athletic 6-foot-1 frame. His hair is a duck-tail-and-pompadour monument to the 1950s, his era, when he was winning Golden Gloves boxing matches, playing high school football, sandlot baseball.
Although admittedly a most unlikely candidate for front page stories and the Walter Cronkite show, Lowry has nevertheless become a key figure in the scandals. The Justice Department credits his allegations for providing the basis for the current far-reaching investigations.
The ultimate irony is that Lowry tried for two years to tell the story tht might have saved the taxpayers millions of dollars. He wrote detailed, angry letters, single-spaced, three pages long - to the president, senators, congressmen, the GSA, the FBI, The Washington Post. No one listened enough to do anything. Then two years later, last March, when The Post began revealing the extent of the scandal. Lowry decided to come forth again. This time, they listened.
Lowry weaves a labyrinthine tale of corruption and subterfuge as contractors wooed GSA building managers in order to get jobs. In exchange for kickbacks, GSA employes paid for phantom paint jobs, for two coats of paint when only one was painted, for thousands upon thousands of square feet of nonexistent painting and plastering and repairing, thus hiking prices so that they and the contractors benefited.
There were certain hitches, such as regulations that the building manager had to get three bids. So a kick-backing company merely made up companies. "You'd fill out all three forms. Contractors just knew that if you didn't pay off, you got no work," claims Lowry.
Investigatrs are, indeed, uncovering a long-standing, endemic pattern to the GSA operation. Lowry says he got his GSA start in 1968 when he helped a friend on a rush GSA repair and paint job, then started circulating in the field offices for more contracts.
The largest number of building managers operate in the Baltimore-Washington region: some 160 out of about 2,000 across the country.
Lowry says the number of building managers on the take grew over the years. "The building manager is head man in a field office. The only one he really answers to is the commissioner of public buildings. These managers were often retired colonels or majors who 'have their congressmen' and get appointed. The honest people just stopped getting promoted," he claims.
Lowry says he began to size up the operation when "no matter what I bid, I was never the lower bidder. After bidding on four or five jobs and losing, you learn to say, 'What's it cost to be low?' If they were dealing, they would tell you. Myself, I would work either way. Now I'd rather work legit, but most of the time if it took paying off I'd do it that way also. I was like a double person. Basically, the legitimate contractors have to consider a few hundred dollars here and there. Now if you're doing a million-dollar project and it's necessary to pay an inspector $1,000, you're going to pay it. You're at his mercy. He could hold up the whole project . . . could say that nothing is right."
Lowry soon found that part of his job was to wine and dine building managers and cater to their whims. "I had to put on the front," says Lowry, who decked himself out in $400 suits (purchased wholesale through a friend for $100) and routinely made the rounds.
"You arranged your bidding and any other work to be finished by noon. Then you'd go to the managers and ask. Where y'all feel like going?"
Lowry continued: 'They had expensive tastes, went to high-class places - the Monocle, Market Inn, Hogates . . .
"One guy, it wasn't nothing for him to order a $50 bottle of wine. My own tastes? I'd eat the filet right along with them. But if I wasn't with them and it was coming out of my own pocket it would be a Coca-Cola and a Big Mac. But hell, the taxpayer bought those $200 lunches. There wouldn't be the lunch, if it wasn't going to get added the work price.
"Quite often, the 'lunches' would last until 2 a.m. For instance, down on K Street, they started this topless place. You knew when they said, 'Let's go there' that it was going to be a long lunch. The more they drank and the more they looked, the friskier they got and the next thing you're told, 'If you ain't no sense in you coming around tomorrow.' So you learned to come up with a 'phone number.'"
Lowry says that wasn't too difficult either. "I asked a bartender, said I knew some guys who wanted a favor done and he gave me a phone number. I never needed another after I got that one. She was right off 16th Street, up past the Woodner and she had eight to 10 girls worked for her. I was able to use from '68 clear on up to '71, '72 when I decided to get out of the fraud side of GSA."
He recalls one last blast in February or March of 1971. "It was the parties after the Touchdown Club banquet. A cleaning contractor furnished the suite and there were six other contractors and 14 or 16 GSA people, and about five or six girls. We furnished the girls and the liquor and the whole night ran close to $6,000."
Lowry stopped to sip a cup of coffee and feflected impassively about the payoffs, the dealing, the fledging company he was able to build-up through his GSA contracts. ?What I call 'the greed factor' sorts taken over. The more you do it and the longer you do it, the more acceptable it gets and the less you fear. I boxed Golden Gloves and the first time in the ring I don't even remember, except I knocked the other boy out in 17 seconds and I knew I was scared to death. I've seen building managers the first time they did something wrong break out in a nervous sweat, over taking $100. In 60 days, i've seen that same business manager laugh at stealing $5,000."
At that time, building managers could write any work for under $2,000 without any checks or balance. "When you're a manager doing 10 or 12 of 'em a week, that's a lot. They were honestly worth a maximum of $1,000 (in supplies and labor). In 1970 my company did $140,000 worth of those $2,000-and-under jobs," says Lowry.
"The first time I had to deal I shook like a leaf. It was '68 and I had taken a contract and had to give a guy $300 to get it. I didn't sleep for two days. Later, it was easier. You see, the government doesn't check itself. They just don't care and it gets easier."
'Work Is My Hobby'
Lowry describes himself as somewhat of a misfit, an independent, stubborn workaholic. "I work twice as hard as anybody and if a boss ever said anything, I'd tell him to go to hell." Nor is he, with some half dozen assault arrests, any stranger to bar brawls. "They can lock me up for fist fighting nine times a week and it don't mean a thing if I feel I had a right to be fighting. Like the time beer bottles was getting broke over the top of my head. It seems myself and my brother 'assaulted' 19 Pagans (a motorcycle gang). The cops figured it that way when they arrived and we were still standing and they weren't."
Lowry is a second generation painter and a participant in "second generation scandals." One of nine in a feisty Irish family, Lowry grew up in southeast Washington and then in a variety of nearby Maryland towns.
His father was Battling Bobby Lowry in the yellowed 1934 newspaper clips his son pulls out, hearlded by sports writers as one of Washington's best young welterweights. A broken jaw ended that career. Twenty years later, the newspapers were once again filled with stories of Robert Lowry. This time Lowry, former secretary-treasurer of the powerful District Painters' Union Council, was found guilty on conspiracy and extortion charges.
"It didn't bother me because I knew what he had done and what he hadn't done. What he actually did for himself was so small it didn't make any difference." But then, a few minutes later, Lowry says he dropped out of his junior year in high school in 1953 because of all the adverse publicity.
It was not the first time Lowry had dropped out of school. He was, in fact, a first grade dropout.
A slight smile is on his face. "NObody knew about it. I went the first day and never went back and I guess the school figured my parents took me to another school. It would never worked had I been there long enough to show up on the records. Every morning I got up, got dressed, went two blocks to the playground and played." Lowry says this went on for the entire year, until spring, "when my mother was walking over to my grandmother's house and caught me coming out of the playground."
In the years between the first and 11th grades. Lowry went to several Catholic schools, got good grades, especially in mathematics.
Lowry wanted to be a boxer, not a painter. But, he says, "If you have a father who lost only four out of 98 professional fights and he says, 'You're going to do something and not hang around the pool room,' well, you change your mind." Lowry became a painter, was soon hungry for more, becoming a foreman for such jobs as the Watergate complex. "Work is my hobby. I get more fun out of the competition - figuring out how to out-smart the others."
It is this tenacious quality that turned Lowry into a man obsessed with blowing the whistle on the GSA scandal.
The Cool Rage Builds
By early 1972, Lowry had "walked away from the fraud side of GSA." He felt he was being ripped off by colleagues and that it was actually costing him money to play the kick-back game. "It finally all amounted to funny money, it was on paper (tied up in the corporation machinations) and I was never going to see it."
Lowry split up with his partners and decided to start over. "At the same time, I wasn't going to say nothin' about any one at GSA or any contractors.But the deals were just growing and growing and getting bigger. I never said nothin'. It was their business. And then you half-way wonder who could tell anyway. You got to ask how does it go."
But Lowry found on his second try that there was kickbacks all around. "In 1972, a general contractor told me if anyone asked how many square feet I billed him for I'd just have to claim my mind wasn't a computer and there was no way I could remember. He was doctoring the quantiti - I knew just as soon as he told me not to say anything."
In 1973, he was a low bidder on a Pentagon project and stood to make a million over the long period of a term contract.
But the final crunch came in 1974 when Lowry bid for a lucrative term contract. "I spent maybe four days, figuring how to bring down the cost, itemizing everything. I could take my work sheets and tally it to one one-hundredth of a penny. I bid it to absolutely rock bottom - and came in second."
The cool rage is still there as Lowry recalls how he asked to see the other bid. He realized after a quick look that it was a magic act; the contractor had jiggled the pennies around in a convoluted manner difficult for any layman to discern. "It was an unbalanced bid - and that can only work if there is fraud."
One simple example is to look at two bids for the same work. "Say the normal price to paint one coat is seven cents a square foot. Say the job is 200,000 square feet and I deduct a penny a foot - so I've deducted $20,000 off the bottom price and am content to make a small profit at six cents a foot. Now say another guy comes along at four cents a square foot - but he adds several cents to a second coat - a coat he never intends to put on.On the first coat itemization looks as if he's saving the government money over me, but he's getting it back by re-jiggling the prices on work he isn't going to do."
Being cheated out of a highly lucrative job after he himself had decided to work honestly was the final blow. Something snapped inside Lowry; the former adaptable con artist turned whistle-blower.
Lowry kept hammering away, looking at other bids, feeling certain he could prove either an honest mistake or fraud in many contracts. Neither the GSA or FBI pursued the case diligently at that time.
On July 12, 1976, Lowry wrote to one GSA official, with carbon copies to everyone from President Ford and The Washington Post to several senators and the Justice Department: "At our meeting of mid May I explained to you and your staff the thousands of ways building managers and contractors have to be able to commit fraud, and many ways to cover them up . . . By your staff's own admission the irregularities are the rule and not the exception. I cannot fathom in my mind the government's reluctance to act on these matters . . . The FBI has been investigating for ONE year. Every time a new case comes up it is an excuse to shove this one aside for a month."
One firm now being reviewed by a federal grand jury is Levcon Construction Co. The GSA had refused to give the necessary papers concerning Levcon to The Post under the freedom of Information Act, citing as their reason that the company was under investigation. With documents supplied by Lowry, however, The Washington Post disclosed that while Levcon had painted only 1.9 million square feet of wall and ceiling surface in the GSA headquarters, it was actually paid for painting 2.4 million square feet.
Levcon was also paid $24,375 for painting 187,000 square feet in six elevator penthouses that contain only 14.316 square feet of area. It also was paid for repairing 122,000 square feet of plaster - in corridors that contain only 79,000 square feet of space. Post reporter Ronald Kessler was able to use a tape measure to find some of the discrepancies, then The Post hired a consulting firm to confirm the rest.
"You'd think the FBI could have done the same thing," says Lowry, wryly. "You don't have to be a mathematical genius to figure its kinda hard to paint 2.5 million square feet in a building that's got only 1.9 million.
Paying the Price
Since 1975, when Lowry started his personal investigation and complaints and letter writing, his work has suffered. "There's been only three or four contractors who would dare use me. They still had to do business with the thieves."
He lives most of the time in the run-down office-home, with its faded wallpaper and his blue prints and works on bids, which have picked up this fall.
His wife - he has been separated for three years - lives with four of their children in White Plains. His oldest son Robert, lives with Lowry, attends the University of Maryland and wants to be a lawyer. "But he's going to learn to be a painter first."
Things have not been easy. There have been threats on Lowry's life. He claims his Great Dane was poisoned. (An autopsy showed he died of an intake of chemicals but could not determine what the chemical was.) "All I can say is he was a healthy dog one day and dead three days later," Lowry says tersely. But Lowry feels he can build his business back. That, he says, is all that really matters. "Like I said, I'm a workaholic. Me and a lady friend'll go to a supper club for a meal and beers and I bowl once a week but that's about it."
There is one more Robert Lowry story. He tells of how he became nearly crazed at the corruption and cheating he saw and became convinced that no one would listen to him. So he devised a diabolical plot that could have landed him in jail.
"But it didn't matter. I'm hard-headed. If I know I'm 100 percent right I can't accept being wrong." In October 1977 Lowry was awarded a GSA contract. "I had put the word out I was ready to cooperate with them - to do whatever was necessary, such as overstate my bills, so they took a chance." Lowry worked and waited. He had fixed it to be the low bidder in a rigged bid to be made in April, along with other contractors. "The other contractors thought we were just going to steal; what I had in mind was to get everyone into the trap and expose them. I was going to fix it and have it all taped and keep the records and say, "Okay, I'm a thief. I've just stolen "X" amount of dollars, now let's figure out the paperwork of other contractors and compare with mine and see how much they've been stealing and when is it going to stop? I figured I'd have to pay back $50,000 to the government and go to jail but it wouldn't have mattered. This whole thing just became an obsession.
"Maybe it was a sneaky way to do it, but it would be from the inside and I would be able to prove it. Now I'm right in the middle of all this when I pick up the paper and see that first story in March." (While sources told The Post of the FBI and GSA investigation into fraudulent contracts, they provided few details.)
"I thought, 'Oh my God, why does this have to happen now?' The beginnings were there in the story but no one knew exactly what to look for. And then the GSA starts saying how really rare this was and involved only a small amount of money and well, after fighting for years, I felt like vomiting that the government would get away with it. I thought about it all day and then I picked up the phone." Indictments are expected on many of the companies Lowry mentioned.
Other tipsters and whistleblowers have come forth, mostly anonymously since those first stories. As the scandal widens, Lowry, who shows little optimism, feels that this time, "They're going to get a lot of 'em. They can't sweep this under the rug or whitewash it now. It's gotten too big. The government doesn't have a choice."
he paused as he fiddled with a contract work order he had been filling out. "And I don't have a chance - unless it is cleaned up."