Jose Gutierrez, a high-ranking aide to District Mayor Marion Barry, said yesterday that as head of the city's purchasing agency he resisted pressure from City Administrator Thomas Downs to approve several controversial contracts, and that he believes this is why he was removed from that post this month.
"I have every reason to believe they the contracts were the controlling issues," said Gutierrez, who now heads the mayor's Office of Policy and Program Evaluation.
Gutierrez, who for years has been the highest-ranking Hispanic official in Barry's administration, met with about 30 Hispanic community leaders on Tuesday and, according to sources, indicated he believed Downs had ordered the contracts approved for political reasons.
It was the first time a mayoral aide of that stature had openly alleged that the Barry administration was seeking to award contracts on the basis of politics. Gutierrez also defended his handling of city contracts and leases, in the wake of reports that the administration was dissatisfied with his direction of the Department of Administrative Services. He said in an interview that federal or city authorities should launch an investigation if anyone has serious reservations about his conduct.
Downs yesterday declined to comment on Gutierrez's statements, saying he had not talked with Gutierrez and was unaware that he had such concerns.
Barry said yesterday that his administration has not sought to make contract awards for political reasons. "I don't steer any contracts," he said.
He said Gutierrez's transfer was part of an effort to strengthen his overall administration, not a punishment. "If I'm not satisfied with someone's performance, I don't threaten them, I fire them," he said.
Gutierrez said yesterday that while he had "philosophical and personal" differences with Downs, "I still believe the mayor and I still share the same philosophy."
One of the disputes involves the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co.'s efforts to obtain major contracts to provide telephone service to the District government, including one for a telephone system in the new municipal center at 14th and U streets NW and another for a "911" emergency telephone system.
In a letter to Downs that Gutierrez drafted but did not send, he stated that Downs had tried to pressure him to sign what amounted to a "blank contract" with C&P for the 911 system, although it did not specify the kind or amount of equipment that would be installed.
Gutierrez said yesterday that the statements in the draft letter are accurate.
Delano Lewis, executive vice president of C&P, was an official of Barry's 1978 and 1982 campaigns for mayor and is a close friend of the mayor. Lewis said last week that he had discussed the municipal center issue with Downs.
Barry said he talked with Lewis yesterday about telephone communications in general, but not specifically about the contracts. He said the city may award the municipal building phone contract to C&P, but not because of his friendship with Lewis. Barry said he is concerned that if the phone company loses out on city contracts, it will have to seek rate increases that could hurt low-income families and the elderly.
Another contract Gutierrez cited involved a proposed lease of city-owned Georgetown waterfront land to a group of businessmen seeking to renovate the presidential yacht Williamsburg as a floating restaurant.
In his draft letter, Gutierrez said Downs wanted him to set a rent of $2,000 a month for the choice waterfront property. Gutierrez said that amount is far too little for such a valuable piece of land.
The mayor's decision March 6 to reassign Gutierrez, and reports that the mayor and Downs had been dissatisfied with Gutierrez's performance, sparked a furor in the District's growing, politically active Hispanic community.
Enrique S. Rivera-Torres, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Hispanic Community Agencies, said yesterday that a Barry aide threatened his group with a cutoff or tightening of city funds if it continued to raise questions about Gutierrez's transfer.
Rivera-Torres said he received a call March 15 from Tina Smith, director of the mayor's Office of Special Services, warning him that the administration would "play hardball" if members of the Hispanic council did not keep quiet.
"If we continued to press this issue, I was to understand that [city] contracts in the Hispanic community . . . and funding for Hispanic programs could be jeopardized," Rivera-Torres recalled. He said Smith later apologized.
Smith was on leave yesterday and could not be reached for commment. Downs said he had been unaware of the incident. Barry said that if Smith did threaten Rivera-Torres, she "certainly went against the policies of this administration."
As for Gutierrez's allegations that Downs had attempted to influence the awarding of contracts or leases, Downs said: "I don't know. Jose and I have not had any conversations about that . . . . I don't know what his concerns are. I'll have to find out from him. It's the first time the issue has been raised, that he has raised those kinds of concerns."
Gutierrez stated in his draft letter to Downs that the city administrator repeatedly attempted to involve himself in the contracting process, including contracts for the purchase of fuel oil and lime and a computer system for the Department of Corrections.
"I cannot, in conscience, allow you to use your position to attempt to influence the awarding of contracts or leases," the letter stated. "I also must make it clear that your subtle threats regarding my responsibilities in these regards will not accomplish your desired results."
Gutierrez said yesterday that he decided against sending the letter early this year in hopes of reaching an accommodation with Downs and the mayor.
The mayor held a meeting with Gutierrez around Feb. 18 to air differences and work out a resolution, according to two sources. Ivanhoe Donaldson, a former deputy mayor and a longtime Barry adviser, and Elijah B. Rogers, the former city administrator -- sat in on the meeting, according to the sources.
Gutierrez agreed during the meeting to go along with being transferred to the program and policy office, with a far smaller staff and budget, if Barry publicly gave Gutierrez a clean bill of health and put a stop to internal sniping at him, according to the sources.
However, the agreement apparently collapsed when published reports stated that the District Building had been rife for weeks with rumors of a shake-up, with much of the attention focused on Gutierrez, whose leadership of the large administrative services department had become a target of criticism. Some Hispanic leaders saw those reports as a breach of the agreement between Gutierrez and the mayor.
Barry has enjoyed Hispanic support in his mayoral campaigns. But Hispanic community leaders have sometimes complained that he has not made good on his campaign promises, and also that he has not treated Gutierrez well.
Officials of the Council of Hispanic Community Agencies said this week that Barry has made little progress in hiring and promoting Hispanics, increasing the percentage of contracts awarded to Hispanic business persons, or responding to community allegations of police brutality.
Gutierrez took over the Department of Administrative Services -- the city's chief purchasing agency -- in May 1984 and received mixed reviews from top administration officials.
Some officials questioned his decision, for example, to enter a 10-year, $22.4 million lease agreement for a building at 1111 E. St. NW that is owned by a partnership controlled by Angel S. Roubin, a Hispanic businessman. Gutierrez denies that he approved the contract as a favor to a Hispanic, and he adds that Downs vetoed his effort to negotiate a deal in which the District would end up with half-ownership of the building at the end of the term of the lease.