When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty invokes the term “as fast as humanly possible,” he’s usually not talking about his swim-bike-run times. That’s what he says when asked about the delivery of city services and facilities. Channeling the longstanding frustrations of D.C. residents, Fenty has put his agencies, his minions, on a municipal triathlon timeline: Finish pronto or get left behind.
It’s all good, right? Get those bureaucrats off their asses and serve the people.
Thanks to the Fenty scandal du jour, however, LL and the rest of the city are learning about the dark side of the “humanly possible.”
When Fenty handed at least $120 million in city money to the D.C. Housing Authority, which, in turn, handed it to politically connected contractors with only the faintest whiff of oversight, he was no doubt trying to deliver on his mantra. By doing an end-around on city procurement processes, he’s aiming to cut ribbons on at least 11 neighborhood projects by the summer of 2011, with ground broken on each by this upcoming spring (in the midst, incidentally, of his re-election campaign).
Yet the mayor as endurance athlete—focused, disciplined, driven by hard data rather than parochial politicking—turns out to be the mayor willing to sacrifice any principle of good government in order to get his projects done.
At a contentious D.C. Council hearing on the contracts last Friday, City Administrator Neil O. Albert provided a simple explanation for the contracting scheme: It’s faster, better, and cheaper. The hearing illuminated the ramifications:
• Tens of millions in city dollars were moved around the city budget without independent review.
• Money was handed to DCHA, a ‘quasi-independent’ public concern, which in turn gave the money to a nonprofit subsidiary that engaged in a contracting process that saw little, if any, legal review. For its trouble, DCHA was paid $700,000.
• Management functions were then outsourced to a private company, Banneker Ventures, that was paid more than $4.2 million to do a job—capital project management—that the Department of Parks and Recreation already employs a staff of 11 to do. Banneker is owned by a close Fenty ally, Omar Karim.
• Banneker Ventures, in turn, was allowed to run a subcontracting process with only the faintest adherence to accepted procurement practices, with near complete power to distribute millions of dollars in public money to the contractors of their choice (including, fellow frat pal Sinclair Skinner’s Liberty Engineering & Design). This was done with the input of mayoral officials.
• A contract described the scope of the work to be done for several projects—in some cases costing taxpayers more than $10 million—in a single paragraph of about 100 words. (A top official in the Office of the Inspector General noted that the language was “problematic” and “needs to be redone.”)
• And the whole scheme was created and calibrated in such a way as to elude oversight by elected officials. It took the D.C. Council more than three months to figure out that this was going on under their noses.
The most surprising testimony of the day came from a family-owned local contractor, HRGM Corp. That outfit wanted to compete to build what turned out to be a playing field at the Park View Recreation Center. To get a piece of the pie, it had to comply with the subcontracting process that ensued after Banneker was handed the project management contract. HRGM owner Ramesh Butani and his daughter Rachna testified that the process was essentially a farce—that they were given limited information on what they were supposed to build, that the judging process was opaque, and that there was no attempt afterward to explain why they had lost the bid.
Said Rachna Butani, “It has been unclear to me what value Banneker Ventures adds.…They’re not responsive.…They can’t answer questions.”
She added: “I don’t believe they are professional or capable to handle these contracts.”
Who knows whether HRGM had what it takes to get that field completed on the Fenty clock? What we do know, however, is that the Fenty people hijacked the process, hid everything from public view—and frat brothers ended up with a load of cash.
For the Vincent Grays and Mary Chehs and other Fenty detractors, here’s a felony misstep by the Fenty regime to pile on top of the getting-hard-to-count misdemeanors of the past couple of years. Yet there are a few strands that tie this huge contract scandal with the “mini-messes” that preceded it.
The rec contracting scandal shares an insistence on secrecy with the Dubai trip and the enrollment of the Fenty sons in Lafayette Elementary School. It shares a loathing of the council with the hoarding of baseball tickets and his petulance on oversight issues. And it shares its provincial, proprietary views of what’s legal and illegal with the episode in which Fenty’s buddy played chauffeur in a city-owned vehicle, among other issues.
Each of these easily avoidable screw-ups contradicts the image that Fenty shaped during his 2006 campaign—that Adrian Fenty was the transparent, accountable, pragmatic, get-it-done populist. Rather, he’s acted like an arrogant, power-hungry, win-at-all-costs guy who doesn’t know how to pick his battles, make allies, and otherwise be the “big city mayor” he wants everyone to know he is.
And each time he operates in the shadows, arrogates power to himself, dismisses oversight, and plays fast and loose with the law, he adds beef to the narrative that someone is going to lay down before packed community rooms starting next spring.
Primary Day is Sept. 14, 2010.
Fenty Adopts Bush Tactic
LL and other local observers have gotten plenty of mileage out of comparing Fenty’s executive-power-aggregating habits to those of President George W. Bush.
Both, for instance, have foiled legislative attempts to conduct oversight of their administrations, have been stingy when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, and have generally tried to consolidate control over their governments.
Let the comparisons continue!
Early in October, the D.C. Council passed the fiscal 2010 city budget, after months of wrangling over how best to deal with a late-breaking drop in city revenue. The process had not exactly been a model of cooperation, with the council jawing about Fenty’s methods of closing the $660 million budget gap and Hizzoner threatening a veto over school-governance matters.
But even with the final vote, the bickering hasn’t ceased. On Oct. 15, Attorney General Peter J. Nickles dispatched a 13-page memo [PDF] to Fenty, who in turn sent it to Gray. The document lays out no fewer than 16 provisions included in the budget legislation that Nickles and his lawyers found to be objectionable—including six measures, he announced, that the executive branch should ignore completely due to “problems, including separation-of-powers and other Home Rule Act violations, that prevent lawful implementation.”
The practice mirrors Bush’s embrace of “signing statements”—messages sent to lawmakers accompanying the presidential signature. The practice, certainly, did not begin with Bush—presidents as far back as James Monroe have made them, but it saw a halcyon era under Bush 43. According to one professor's analysis, Bush by the end of his tenure ended up challenging some 1,200 provisions in federal law—doubling the figures for all those before him combined.
Where Bush’s memos addressed matters such as affirmative action programs and the treatment of military detainees, Fenty’s budget memo deals with matters like taxi rates (the council has no power to set them), budget directives for the deputy mayor’s office (an “unlawful management of Executive Branch affairs”), and grant reporting requirements for the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. (the home rule charter says the council only gets to review contracts, not grants).
But just as Bush’s use of the maneuver sent Congress over the edge, Nickles’ memos are driving council types crazy.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh says Nickles "is channeling Alberto Gonzales on an unsupported theory of executive power" and says he "doesn't really understand" the doctrines he cites. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson says "much of the logic is tortured" and that it's "part of this continuing pattern of picking and choosing which laws to follow." Even At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania of all people, increasingly peeved by Fenty overreaching, calls them "an exercise in creative writing without the force of law."
As on the federal level, mayors have issued legislative memos before, but usually to accompany vetoed legislation, says Brian Flowers, the council’s chief lawyer. And since Fenty has taken office, he says, the memos have been flying faster than ever before, with increasingly broad legal claims.
As for the claims in Nickles’ budget memos, “Some of them are quite laughable,” Flowers says. He is drafting a response.
Nickles has a fine retort to the Bush comparisons: “Why don’t they criticize President Obama, who’s engaged in the same practice?”
Indeed, Barack Obama said during the 2008 campaign that he and his lawyers “aren’t going to use signing statements as a way to do an end run around Congress.” Since taking office, however, Obama has issued dozens of his own, and Nickles says he’s read them: “He ensured that Congress knows the president’s view…that he’s not going to interpret legislation to interfere with the Constitution.”
Nickles explains his legislative memos this way: “I think the executive has the duty to stand for the executive’s prerogatives. Otherwise, in our tripartite system of government, one part will run over the other part.”
• Is someone taking a whack at scandal-softened Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham?
Bryan Weaver, the longtime Adams Morgan activist and advisory neighborhood commissioner, filed exploratory papers with the Office of Campaign Finance on Tuesday.
To explore a run against the sure-to-be-well-financed three-term incumbent, Weaver has thus far raised $2,500.
Exploratory bids have been rare since campaign finance laws changed some years back, but Weaver, 39, says his campaign is indeed merely speculative at the moment. “I have my opinions on what’s important to me and to the ward,” he says. “Maybe it’s a minority opinion, I don’t know.” Hence the de rigueur “listening tour.”
Why ponder a run? Weaver cites “a difference in ideas and what’s important to the ward,” pointing in particular to “an utter lack of transparency in government and a feeling that there’s a certain group of people who have a seat at the table because of contributions that they give.”
And even if Graham’s longtime chief of staff, Ted Loza, hadn’t been arrested on Sept. 24 as part of a federal bribery sting, Weaver says he’d still be looking at the race. “If you take a foreign trip for 30 days organized by someone with business before the council”—a not-so-veiled reference to alleged briber Abdulaziz Kamus and a 2006 trip to Ethiopia—“no congressman could get away with that,” he says. “I want to hold my city councilmember to the same standards.”
Graham’s campaign apparatus, meanwhile, is grinding to life. He filed his re-election papers in September, and political consultant Chuck Thies has signed on to deliver zinger quotes on his behalf.
“I wish him well. Running as a first-time candidate always presents a number of unforeseen challenges,” he says, playing up Graham’s strong backing in “every part” of Ward 1. “That base of support will surely need to be considered by Bryan as he explores a possible candidacy.”
• Is the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board about to get more health-conscious?
Last month, board chair Peter Feather announced he’d be stepping down in order to take a job out of town. To replace him, Fenty has nominated board member Chuck Brodsky, founder of the Nation’s Triathlon and one of Fenty’s famous “running buddies.”
Also nominated to the board recently is Aisha Wade, a Ward 8 resident who describes herself as a “[v]ersatile, experienced fitness professional.” She’s currently employed by the tony West End gym Sports Club/LA as an assistant fitness manager.
LL ran the potential new additions past Adams Morgan bar owner Bill Duggan, as staunch a defender of good old-fashioned legal vice as you’ll find in this town.
His take: “Watch—they’ll change the ABC Board to the SmartWater Board!”
The Madam’s Organ owner also has more substantive concerns. “It’s the only board that never has anyone from the industry at all,” he says. “You’d never have the medical board without a doctor…and here they bring in any Tom, Dick, or Harry that’s a friend of someone.”
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