D.C. City Administrator Robert C. Bobb yesterday acknowledged that he recommended some former associates from Oakland, Calif., for city work but denied that he ordered anyone to give them contracts.
"I never directed that the District government should obtain the services of these contractors, as opposed to others, or that their services should come through sole-source contracts," Bobb said during two hours of testimony before the council's Committee on Government Operations.
In a report released this month, D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols said Bobb and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) circumvented the city's contracting laws when they paid four consultants, three of them from Oakland, more than $150,000 last year. In several cases, payments were made without authorization from the city's contracting office, Nichols said.
Bobb said that his staff did not follow proper procedures when awarding the contracts. He said that steps have been taken, including holding a training seminar two weeks ago, to make sure the errors do not happen again.
"Those mistakes were the product of inexperience and innocent error, not of willful or wanton misconduct," he said.
Bobb criticized Nichols's investigation, saying that she made "excessive, unreasonable demands" by insisting that his staff produce extensive documentation in one or two days. He added that her report "ignores or distorts many of our written factual comments."
Although Bobb said the auditor's report "uncovered technical and procedural errors," he said he took issue with it "if it was questioning the intent and ethics of staff in the Executive Office of the Mayor." He emphasized that no city employees personally benefited from the contracts at issue and that the auditor's report does not point to any waste, fraud or abuse.
But Nichols, who also appeared at the hearing, testified that she stood by her earlier assertions that the transactions with the contractors perpetrated a "sham" and were a "highly irregular" method of doing business. She said her office has asked for the work products of several of the consultants but had not yet received documentation.
Among the contracts covered in her report were agreements with Melinda Yee-Franklin and Lily Hu, consultants from Oakland who were each paid $25,000 to help plan the mayor's trade mission to China in October. Nichols said they were contracted by the mayor's office without a written agreement.
The auditor's report also cites a contract with Jane Brunner, a labor lawyer and Oakland City Council member, to develop a job training program. That contract also was awarded without the contracting office's authority, Nichols said.
She added that the Williams administration circumvented the law by twice extending a sole-source contract with Strategic Advisory Group, a consulting firm hired to help the city attract a Major League Baseball team. The contract, originally for $300,000, grew to $977,000.
Bobb said yesterday that he knew Hu and Brunner from his years as Oakland city manager but not Yee-Franklin.
He said that when other city officials "asked me whether I could recommend competent, experienced consultants in the case of the Asian trade mission and . . . in the case of the apprenticeship program, I was happy to do so." That was the extent of his involvement, he said.
But D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), the committee's chairman, cited e-mails written by Bobb and his then-chief of staff, Ed Reiskin.
In one e-mail, Bobb told Brunner that "my team are aware of my desire to use your services" and added: "I need to assign a staff person to work out our consultant deal." In another e-mail, Reiskin wrote to Gregory P. Irish, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, that the city administrator was going to hire Brunner but needed a funding source for the $7,500-a-month payments. Brunner's contract was for up to $90,000, but she was paid $8,667.
Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said Bobb's office was "completely out of control."
In a case that was not included in the auditor's study, records show that Bobb helped Rosie Rios, a consultant who had been his economic development director in Oakland, get a subcontract for the baseball recruitment work.
Bobb told the council committee that he thought Rios's experience researching baseball stadium development would be valuable to the District.
Orange asked why Bobb didn't simply put Rios on his staff. "Why didn't you bring Ms. Rios through the front door? Why did she have to come through the back door?" Orange asked.
When Orange asked him if any other contracts with former associates might surface, Bobb said "absolutely not."
"I'm going to contact hundreds of friends from Kalamazoo to Santa Ana," he said, to say he cannot use their services.