Ask William Walker III why heâs visited the Dominican Republic beach town of SosĂșa dozens of times in the past few years, and this is what heâll tell you:
âWhat I fell in love with is the peace and serenity of the ocean,â he says. âBeing able to swim and fish. Wasnât a lot of bureaucracy.â
Maybe not down there. But Walkerâs trips to SosĂșa have sure caused a bureaucratic extravaganza around these parts. The 51-year-old Upper Marlboro resident says he set events into motion that nearly led to the city giveaway of a surplus fire truck and ambulance to the Dominican town. Those shadowy events have since prompted a cursory non-investigation by Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and more thoroughgoing probes by Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby, the D.C. Council, and local reporters.
Walker is scheduled to appear Thursday at a hearing held jointly by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson on why, exactly, usable city emergency equipment was almost shipped to SosĂșa with no official explanation save for a cryptic line printed in the March 20 D.C. Registerââthe Chief Procurement Officer or his designee may donate surplus supplies to Peaceaholics Inc., a nonprofit organization.â
At the hearing, Walker says, he plans to tell his story.
Itâs a story that starts with a tragedy. Walker, a native Washingtonian, came back to the District from Hollywood in 1991 in order to marry the woman he loved. Before they could return, she died on the Suitland Parkway, struck and killed by the driver of a van being chased by D.C. cops. A pair of 14-year-olds were on a joyride.
After hearing the young driver apologize, Walker says he channeled his grief into his faith and into service. âHe stood up in the courtroom, and he said, âI didnât mean to kill your wife. I didnât mean to hurt your family,ââ he recalls. âIâve been working with kids ever since then.â
He co-founded Faith Productions Inc., a nonprofit outfit thatâs drawn on his Hollywood expertise to create numerous youth-oriented programs for District television. And in his day job, heâs worked as a youth counselor in places like Oak Hill and as an AIDS educator. On the side, heâs mentoring kids from east-of-the-river neighborhoods. Walker, a Navy man, also has a hobby: scuba diving. In early 2006, he and some buddies made a diving trip to the Dominican Republic, including to SosĂșaâhis first trip to the seaside outpost.
There he met local kids on the beach, and Walker says his encounters stirred something within him. âI felt guilty for living in a place where we have an abundance of things,â he says. âAnd these people donât even have food to eat.â Within months, he had put together an exchange of sorts, where Walker and his organization brought 10 D.C. kids down to the beach town.
The event, held over Thanksgiving weekend in 2007, was organized around a boxing tournament, Walker says, because âthatâs a drawing card for the Dominicans.â The point of the visit, he says, was to help promote AIDS awareness in a place where sex tourism is rampant. âThere are a lot guys who go down there for sex with kids. What I created was for youthâŠ.We kicked off World AIDS Day there.â
Helping with the arrangement was SosĂșaâs mayor, Vladimir CĂ©spedes, and in the spirit of exchange, Walker offered to help him out however he could. On an earlier visit to SosĂșaâs city hall, he got a glimpse of the municipalityâs emergency vehicles. Old, rusted, and âraggedyâ is how Walker describes those rigs. That sparked Walkerâs imagination: Perhaps the District has an old fire truck or ambulance to give the town? Walker had a grand gesture in mindâpress conferences, bringing D.C. kids back down to SosĂșa, mayoral handshakes, the whole nine yards.
Toward that end, CĂ©spedes came to D.C. just before the boxing tournament. Walker requested a meeting with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty about a possible vehicle donation; what he ended up getting was a Wilson Building sit-down with Pat Ellwood, the Districtâs longtime protocol chief, and David Jannarone, who is the cityâs development director and a top aide in the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. Ellwood was there because sheâs in charge of handling foreign dignitaries; Jannarone was there, Walker was told, because he was the guy who could make the donation happen.
âJannarone said itâs possible, that this could be done,â Walker says.
Over the next few months, Walker worked with Jannarone to get it done. In June 2008, Jannarone, with the help of Office of Contracting and Procurement officials, found him his equipmentâan ambulance and a fire truck. Walker has another term for the vehicles on offer: âgarbage.â They had been essentially stripped; the fire truck didnât even have an engine. âYou couldnât even move them from the lot,â Walker says, and that was unacceptable. âI refused to give somebody something that was nonfunctional, inoperative.âŠI refused to do it. I refused to give that fire truck.â
Walker informed Jannarone that something else would have to be done. âHe got an attitude with me,â Walker remembers, âlike, âThatâs all we have.ââ That was in July 2008âthen communications with Jannarone ceased.
That summer, Walker headed down to the DR for one of his now-regular trips. On his flight were a number of other District guys, he says. They were headed down to hang out with Sinclair Skinner, who was already on site.
Skinner, of course, has a long, checkered political history in this town. Heâs an old friend of Fentyâs, dating back to their days in the Kappa Alpha Psi frat at Howard University. He ran the field operation for Fentyâs mayoral campaign, and ran into heat for his race-baiting tactics in local politics. These days, as a consultant and aspiring developer, the former proprietor of a defunct dry cleaners is doing well for himself. Heâs bought a $700,000 house in Crestwood, blocks from Fenty. He tools around in a sports car. Heâs often seen, with Jannarone, at the monthly happy hours sponsored by the deputy mayorâs office, where developers and city officials schmooze at various hip bars, often late into the night. He was seen at the annual big-box convention in Las Vegas last month, too, among the Fenty entourage.
Jannarone has personal Fenty connections of his own; before entering city service, he worked for Roadside Development, a well-connected local firm, and he also served briefly on his local advisory neighborhood commissionâalongside Shawn Fenty, who represented the same district his brother had.
Once in SosĂșa, the airplane dudes had a hard time finding their way around town, so Walker helped them out. When they found Skinner, the Fenty buddy greeted Walker, saying he knew he had taken kids down to the island.
Walker could see that Jannarone and Skinner had taken a liking to the place. Shortly after Jannarone met CĂ©spedes at the Wilson Building, he took the Dominican mayor up on an invitation to visit. He liked it enough to go back again, according to Walker, who alleges additional Dominican visits by Jannarone and Skinner. Walker knows this, he says, due to his close relationship with CĂ©spedes, who would let him know when they were in town.
LLâs attempts to reach CĂ©spedes failed. Jannarone declined comment through a spokesperson; Skinner could not be reached.
Walker didnât think much of the fire truck deal until the following March. Thatâs when he ran into Peaceoholics founder Ron Moten outside Coleâs Cafe in Anacostia. The two arenât the best of buddiesâthey know of each other by reputation, since both work with local youth.
But Moten knew Walker well enough to brag a little about his latest endeavor: working with the city to send a fire truck and ambulanceâa nice, operable fire truck and ambulanceâdown to this needy little Dominican Republic beach town.
Walker, who had heard nothing about the donation in months, flipped out: âI said, âHow in the ham salad sandwich are you donating a fire truck and an ambulance, and youâve never even been to the Dominican Republic?ââ
He called Jannarone, who denied any involvement in the matter. Walker recalls, âHe says, âBill, I wouldnât do that; Skinner took it out of my hands.ââ
Shortly thereafter, the Peaceoholics line was published in the D.C. Register. The Examinerâs Michael Neibauer spotted the anomalous giveaway and launched a media inquiry that generated much heat on Fenty, but little light. Nickles decided to bring the rigs back to the District from a Miami dock; he then issued a report clearing the mayorâs office of wrongdoingâfailing to mention Jannaroneâs or Skinnerâs roles in the saga. Their roles were outed only after an April report from DCWatchâs Dorothy Brizill.
Walker, for his part, says heâs less upset about Jannaroneâs and Skinnerâs backhanded waysâthough heâs plenty upset about thatâas he is that the rigs never made it to the island.
âThis had the opportunity to be something very good for kids,â he says. âFor whatever reason, Jannarone and [Skinner] decided to do things the way they did it. If they had come to me [and said], âBill, your nonprofit doesnât have the money to do this,â or whatever, my response would have been, âWhy not?â...Iâm not interested in being in the newspaper or being on the news. I could have done that many times....And another thing I donât understand: why theyâre being so secretive about everything.â
Secrecy accomplishes a couple of objectives: It helps distance a top city hall official (Jannarone) and a long-controversial political crony (Skinner) from a questionable transaction. It also permits a scapegoating of folks less involved in this messâpeople like Deputy Fire Chief Ronald Gill, who visited SosĂșa to train officials there on the equipment, and Robin Booth, an Office of Contracting and Procurement official who helped prepare the equipment for transfer. And that goes for Ron Moten, who Walker calls a âpawn.â
Walker is mystified why those folks have taken much of the heat: âMoten, if he had anything to do with it, it was on the tail end. Booth, if she had anything to do with it, she was following orders. Gill, if he had anything to do with it, it was because someone said, we need you to do A, B, and C. Those three people did not initiate nothing. Theyâre the ones hung out to dry.â
According to a council source, both Jannarone and Skinner are likely to be deposed in connection with their investigation in the coming weeks. Those depositions, as well as those taken last week from Booth and Gill, will remain sealed until the council committees doing the investigation vote to release them. That will likely happen when the councilâs final report is made, likely shortly after legislators return from their summer recess.
For all the drama, Walker still wants to give those rigs away. And he wouldnât mind doing it with Moten.
âMy main concern and hope that will come out of this is that hopefully Peaceoholics and I can work together to try to get this fire truck down there, to take kids down there, and continue doing what it is we started doing in the first place,â he says.
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