A D.C. Council member who promised to probe allegations of favoritism in city contracting plans to hold a “public oversight hearing” Thursday that she wants closed to the public.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has taken the rare step, citing personnel issues related to the allegations.
At issue is the abrupt Aug. 12 departure of Christopher Weaver, a retired Navy rear admiral who oversaw most government construction awards for the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Days later, the Bowser administration placed two of Weaver’s aides on administrative leave. An attorney for one subsequently alleged that his client was fired to appease donors to the mayor who lost out on city contracts to prepare sites for a planned soccer stadium for D.C. United at Buzzard Point and a practice facility for the Washington Wizards in Southeast Washington.
That raised concerns from Cheh and others about possible political interference in city contracts, and she promised a hearing into the matter.
But now, Cheh is facing mounting criticism for her decision to close Thursday’s meeting. Doing so is legal because the council exempted its committees from open-meetings laws in 2010.
The D.C. Open Government Coalition this week joined the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and others in calling on Cheh to reconsider. Both say the public has a right to know whether the mayor’s office acted appropriately during the awarding of contracts and the removal of the men from their jobs.
“Beyond stating the obvious, that a hearing from which the public is barred is not a public oversight hearing, we believe closing the hearing would be bad public policy on several levels,” Robert S. Becker, government relations manager for the coalition, said in a letter to Cheh on Monday.
Recently, the press association issued a public statement saying that closing the hearing “creates a sense that the council is not acting transparently.” (The Washington Post is affiliated with both organizations. It is a member of the press association, and a Post attorney is a board member of the coalition).
In an interview, Cheh said that she understands that some are unhappy with her decision but that she thinks it is the best way to obtain the truth in a complicated matter. She said she would issue a report about the testimony gathered behind closed doors.
“The report has to skirt certain personnel issues — because [people involved] are entitled to have their confidentiality maintained,” she said, “but I want to be able to say whether some of the allegations that were out there have any basis in fact.”
She said she expects to ask the Bowser administration about Fort Myer Construction, which tried but failed to win the construction contracts from Weaver’s agency and protested. Cheh said she also will probe whether the dismissed city employees were evaluated fairly and whether the mayor’s office tried to exert undue influence to aid Fort Myer.
Fort Myer and its affiliates have been major political donors in the city. Fort Myer was the largest corporate donor in the 2016 primary season, giving more than $20,000 and making 38 contributions at the maximum level, most to Bowser allies, according to U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Public Citizen.
One of the contracts on which Fort Myer lost out was to prepare the $100 million site at Buzzard Point that the city is providing for a D.C. United soccer stadium. The other was for work on the Southeast Washington campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, where Bowser has promised a $65 million practice arena for the Washington Wizards basketball team.
In both cases, companies from outside the District were chosen.
Weaver’s agency awarded the St. Elizabeths contract to Gilbane Building, based in Rhode Island, which submitted a $6 million bid, compared with Fort Myer’s $16 million bid, documents show.
The Buzzard Point contract was awarded to Maryland-based W.M. Schlosser, although Fort Myer had a slightly lower price, according to several people with knowledge of the competition. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the bid documents have not been made public.
D.C. City Administrator Rashad M. Young has declined to discuss Weaver’s resignation or the dismissals of the two agency officials, Deputy General Counsel Carlos M. Sandoval and Associate Director Yinka Alao.
But in August, Young said he would welcome a chance to testify at Cheh’s hearing. He said he had had no advance knowledge that Fort Myer was a bidder and “did not care” whether the company won or lost. Young said he became involved in each decision only after Fort Myer threatened protests, which he said could have delayed both projects.
Young said a major problem was the fact that the Department of General Services had changed the long-standing formula for scoring bids, raising the scale for evaluation from a maximum of 100 points to 200 points. The agency made the change without notifying Young or the mayor’s office, Young said.
Agency officials say the change significantly increased the number of points that a contractor could receive for technical know-how, which they said would benefit small, locally owned, minority companies. But some minority contractors and Bowser administration officials objected, saying the larger scale diluted the points that D.C. companies can earn for minority status.
On the new scale, Fort Myer technically beat Gilbane on a best-and-final offer for the St. Elizabeths work, even though Fort Myer’s price was more than twice as high. However, Weaver, Alao, Sandoval and, ultimately, Young backed Gilbane for the award because of the disparity in the two prices.
In the bidding for the soccer stadium work, Fort Myer also beat Schlosser, but Weaver and his aides disqualified Fort Myer for failing to disclose investigations in the company’s history and for not identifying companies owned by family members or associates that might win subcontracts.
According to emails obtained by The Post, the D.C. attorney general’s office warned Weaver’s agency that incomplete responses were insufficient grounds for disqualifying Fort Myer from the contest.
The two Weaver aides who were dismissed had won accolades in recent years. Sandoval is challenging his dismissal as unjustified, officials said. Alao served at the pleasure of the mayor and has little recourse. Both have repeatedly declined to comment.
Phil Mendelson (D), now the council chairman but who was an at-large council member at the time, defended the decision in 2010 to allow committee meetings to be closed, saying that their work is part of the “shirtsleeves operation” of the council and that accountability for members comes later “when we vote.”
Mendelson did not return a call seeking comment. But the oversight hearing touches on another responsibility of the council — oversight of the executive branch — and that function rarely leads to votes or other direct council action that can be reviewed by constituents.
On the D.C. Council’s website, the hearing notice comes with a warning to the public: “Due to its sensitive and confidential nature, this hearing will be CLOSED and WILL NOT BE TELEVISED.”