Fenty’s DCHA Contracts: Some Questions
You have questions about the $82 million dollars in parks-and-rec spending that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is sending to the D.C. Housing Authority? LL has (some) answers!
What are these projects?
According to data furnished by the D.C. Council, they are 12 projects to renovate 12 parks or recreation facilities. One, to build a $1.3 million ballpark at Emery Rec Center, was awarded in January. The rest—concerning 7th and N park ($800,000), Bald Eagle Rec Center ($5.3M), Barry Farm Rec Center ($15M), Chevy Chase Playground ($1.3M), Fort Stanton Rec Center ($12M), Guy Mason Rec Center ($3M), Justice Park ($12M), Kenilworth Rec Center ($12M), Park View ballfield ($1.2M), Rosedale Rec Center ($16M), and a new park in LeDroit Park ($1.7M)—were awarded last month.
Why are contracts being sent to DCHA?
From the Fenty administration's perspective, going through DCHA allows projects to get off the ground faster. "We build housing, we remodel housing, we have extensive experience in construction management," says DCHA spokesperson Dena Michaelson. "We have in-house skill set to do all this stuff. That's what we bring to the table." DCHA has what's called "independent contracting authority," meaning it's not subject to the usual onerous procurement requirements of the rest of government. But there's also the question of transparency: Today, after this arrangement hit the papers, Attorney General Peter Nickles determined that DCHA was required to send contracts worth more than $1 million to the D.C. Council for approval. But it seems that DCHA was not already in that practice. In any case, the use of DCHA as a city vendor has been on the rise as of late. According to a review of city purchase orders, DCHA had been sent $20.6 million worth of District work in 2006, $29.8 million in 2007, and $22.5 million in 2008. So far this year, DCHA has been handed $57 million from the city, not counting the bulk of the controversial contracts.
What is DCHA's contracting process?
According to Michaelson, the agency's procurement procedures are modeled on the federal government's. The vast majority of DCHA's funding comes through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development; the city money being sent to DCHA is a "drop in the bucket," she says. The DCHA board, which is appointed by the mayor with the consent of the council, reviews all contracts let for more than $250,000. In this particular case, the contract to serve as manager for all 12 parks-and-rec projects was released for bids simultaneously; 13 firms competed, Michaelson says. A joint bid by Banneker Ventures and Regan Associates won. How individual contracts were then let to construction contractors for each project is still unclear.
How are these firms profiting from the city?
In many ways. Since July 2008, Banneker Ventures, run by Fenty frat brother Omar Karim, has been authorized to receive $1.6 million in direct city funding. That was to serve as construction manager on a pair of projects: the reconstruction of Walker-Jones Elementary School and the rebuild of the Deanwood Recreation Center. Banneker is also a developer as well as a construction consultant, having been part fo the team selected in 2007 to rebuild the Sursum Corda/Temple Courts area as "Northwest One." Those two roles have entangled: Earlier this year, Karim was also included on a panel convened by the deputy mayor's office to review submissions for the redevelopment of Stevens Elementary School in Foggy Bottom. Sources close to the process expressed concern at the time to LL about Karim's dual role as a developer and a city-paid consultant. In the latter role, there was concern that Karim would have access to bidders' closely-held financial data—information that could give Karim a leg up in future projects he might bid on. There's also RBK Landscaping & Construction, the company owned by famed Fenty chauffeur Keith Lomax, which has raked in $16.6 million in authorized funds since 2005, most of it through Allen Lew's school construction office—which, like DCHA, has independent contracting authority and is exempt from the usual procurement processes.
What is fishy about all this?
First, the cast of characters. Virtually all of the firms involved (Banneker, RBK, Blue Skye Construction, Capital Construction, Dustin Construction, Forney Enterprise Construction, Forrester Construction, Hamel Construction, Winmar Construction) are major Fenty donors or allies. And Banneker isn't just an ally—it has been associated with some of Fenty's closest associates. Besides Karim, the firm has in the past employed Warren C. Williams Jr., whose involvement in a lottery contract bid drew immense political heat, and Sinclair Skinner, the street activist turned sharp-dressed consultant who seems to be caught up in every mayoral mess.
Second, the timing. The contracts were let in the waning days of Michael Kelly's tenure as DCHA general manager; he left amid rumors that Fenty wanted him out—perhaps to be replaced by Skinner's running buddy David Jannarone, the mayoral director of development. Add to that the parks-and-rec angle: Clark Ray was mysteriously ousted from the head of that agency earlier this year among reports that he clashed with his superiors—was this the reason why?
Third, the secrecy. Even if you buy the implication of Nickles' ruling—that the Fenty administration in no way condoned the letting of big contracts behind the council's back—the contracts went out through the back door. Rather than "reprogram" the funds in a council-reviewed process, it seems to funds were simply granted by the parks department over to the housing agency in a process that wasn't discovered until some council staffers stumbled over the arrangement this week. For a guy who ran for office on accountability and transparency, it's awfully opaque.