Prince George’s County is facing a lot of questions right now about whether it has a “pay to play” political culture. The District, meanwhile, is enduring a lot of questions about the ethical standards of its elected officials, but “pay to play” is not prime among them.
In the wake of Attorney Robert P. Trout’s investigation into city parks contracts awarded under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, however, perhaps it should be. Fenty was cleared of any wrongdoing in the probe ordered by the D.C. Council, but the same can’t be said of his friends Omar Karim and Sinclair Skinner.
Trout is recommending that federal investigators review the pair’s dealings, and federal investigators might want to take a close look at pages 201 through 215 of his report. That section raises questions about the relationship between Karim, Skinner and four construction firms that Karim’s Banneker Ventures hired to serve as general contractors on the parks projects.
First thing you need to know: According to the report, Banneker’s partner in managing the parks projects, Regan Associates, was under the impression it would hire contractors for half of the dozen or so projects. But that didn’t happen, the report says. Instead, Banneker “went on to evaluate and score ... responses on its own ... and it made the determination of which contractors would be invited to submit proposals for all of the parks without reviewing its decisions with the Regan project managers.”
As for the actual picks, the report found that they were made by Banneker alone or “in consultation with” Fenty administration officials. The upshot: “The companies with ties to Karim ... came out on top.”
What were those ties? A rundown:
— Blue Skye Construction -- awarded contracts to renovate Bald Eagle Rec Center and Rosedale Rec Center -- paid Karim’s Liberty Law Group more than $50,000, including at $10,000 payment eight days before it bid on the parks contracts.
— AF Development -- part of a team that was awarded the contract to build the Raymond Rec Center -- paid $53,500 to Liberty Law Group between in 2008 and 2009.
— Capital Construction — awarded the contract to renovate Gibbs Elementary School and part of a team that was awarded the contract to build Justice Park -- paid $54,500 to Skinner’s Liberty Industries between 2008 and 2010.
— District Development Group -- part of a team awarded a contract to renovate Guy Mason Rec Center -- paid $9,000 to Liberty Industries in 2008.
Karim, whose company controlled the bidding process, didn’t tell anyone else involved about his financial ties. That includes his partner, Thomas Regan, who told investigators that “it would give me heartburn” if he knew Karim had gotten consulting fees from bidders he was evaluating. And it includes one of Karim’s own project managers, Duane Oates, who said, according to the report, that “such financial relationships would have constituted a conflict of interest, and that the information would have made a difference to him in making his recommendations.”
The report details the fact that Karim and Skinner would not say what the contractors got in return for their consulting fees.
Skinner, in one deposition, said he did “general consulting.” When asked to detail that work, he said only that it “had nothing to do with ... the Department of Parks and Recreation capital projects. I’m positive the consulting had nothing to do with that.”
And here’s one Q&A with Karim, from a deposition:
Q: What did the Liberty Law Group do for Blue Skye Construction?
A: I believe they’re consulting work.
Q: What sort of consulting work?
A: Whatever consulting they asked us to do, but I do know it had nothing to do with DPR capital projects nor any city contracts or public contracts or any of those types of things. And we have been doing consulting for them for two years, you know, prior to, you know, us even getting involved with any DPR Capital projects, and it wasn’t for anything related to the DPR capital projects at or any other government project. That’s not – we don’t do government consulting.
Blue Skye’s owner, Bryan “Scottie” Irving,, was also questioned by investigators, and he recalled Karim’s consulting work differently, that it gave him greater “understanding of government contracts.” (Irving is a well-known businessman and considered an ally of Fenty’s — in fact, he appeared in a summer campaign ad.)
Trout writes: “[Irving] explained that Karim approached him shortly after Blue Skye submitted a proposal with Coakley Williams to serve as the general contractor for the Walker Jones project, for which Banneker was serving as the project manager along with Regan. Karim advised Irving that Blue Skye was not well represented in its proposal. According to Irving, Karim then offered, for a fee, to help Blue Skye understand the technical aspects of construction, build capacity, and make a stronger appearance in response to future solicitations. Irving began meeting with him regularly for that purpose, and Karim provided him with proposals that other contractors had submitted which they would review and discuss.”
Irving said he also dealt with Skinner, who helped him understand “how you incorporate our people into what you’re doing and how you uplift our community.” That meant, Trout writes, that Skinner and Karim “referred Blue Skye to African-American architects, attorneys, and other consultants.”
Q: Did you expect to pay a monthly fee just to get the name of someone who might be able to help you?
Q: Did you expect that in, you know, trying to develop business for the African American community some of your – some of your friends, whoever they were, or acquaintances would help you do that without a fee, in other words, would give you names? “You ought to talk to this person” –
A: I have never met a person that never gave a name without a fee… In construction.
But Irving “could not recall whether he had any conversations with Karim or Skinner related to” Blue Skye’s parks contract proposal. He did tell Trout that he stopped dealing with Karim and Skinner when “all hell broke loose” over the parks deals.
A. Scott Bolden, an attorney representing both Karim and Skinner, vigorously rejected on Monday the suggestion that the payments to his clients from the contractors were linked to their contract awards. “One has nothing to do with the other,” Bolden said, saying the payments were “unconnected and disconnected from the [parks] contracting process.”
But he defended his Karim and Skinner’s right to keep their dealings a secret, calling them “private contractual matters” that had “absolutely no link to public dollars.”
”We wouldn’t let Mr. Trout and the counsel go traipsing through my clients’ financial records,” Bolden said. “Nor should they be allowed to do that.”
In the end, Trout wrote that his inquiry “raised questions that could not be satisfactorily answered with the tools we had available,” and thus recommended that U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. look into Karim and Trout.
Perhaps federal subpoenas could help refresh some memories.