Council Issues Reports on Fishy Fire Truck Donation
UPDATED, 4:03 P.M.
Shocker: The D.C. Council did not take Peter Nickles' advice and ditch their investigation into the mysterious donation of a city fire truck and ambulance to a little-known Dominican town. In fact, after months of anticipation, they've finally released their reports.
The Cheh report finds "no direct evidence of questionable motives" on the part of members of the Fenty administration or outside persons who sought to influence them; the Mendelson reports notes that "there does not appear to have been any criminal wrongdoing." What the reports did find is that such persons were able to take advantage of vague surplus property rules, using "inside connections and access unknown to those of the general public" to obtain valuable city property.
Here's a key paragraph from the Cheh report: "What makes the transaction so incredible is the fact that so much effort—at the highest levels of District government—was expended to facilitate a transfer of surplus personal property without even a hint of potential benefit for the District government. Rather, the entire affair was merely the pet project—even if well‐intentioned—of a senior District official and a well‐connected nongovernment individual."
Furthermore: "Though no direct evidence of questionable motives on the part of the principals involved in the transaction was found, the mere possibility that influence can be exercised to pursue private aims requires the District to promptly and responsibly implement clear, understandable rules and policies. As seen with this particular donation, inside connections and access unknown to those of the general public resulted in the loss of value to the District government."
The Cheh report also notes that the Fenty administration "repeatedly attempted to frustrate efforts to gain information into how the donation was handled" and that key witnesses "repeatedly denied having knowledge of basic facts and events."
How basic? Take the testimony of Sinclair Skinner, the Fenty friend at the center of this deal. The Cheh report says that Skinner, "despite being the principal owner of several businesses...had no knowledge about basic functions of his businesses. For example, Mr. Skinner had difficulty recalling whether his businesses had contracts with the District and whether his businesses performed work beyond consulting on development projects. Mr. Skinner was also unable to divulge any specific projects that his companies had worked on, with whom he had worked with in the past, or the salary of employees or any dividends paid by his companies." And David Jannarone, a top Fenty development aide, "claimed to have no recall about significant conversations that he had with individuals both in the District and in Sosua" even though he "could vividly recall minor details about the transaction."
The Cheh report also addresses the issue of why the donation was never publicized:
During this time, [Skinner friend David Anderson] sent an email to the group that traveled to Sosua suggesting that “[w]e need to get the DC media machine rolling delivering the fire truck and ambulance to DR is a great opportunity to get some good media attention.” Chief Gill “agree[d] completely” and Mr. Jannarone offered that Sean Madigan, an employee in the Deputy Mayor’s office, could “let us know how the mayor wants to handle it.” Mr. Skinner, though, stated that “[t]he media is a bad idea.” And apparently the idea was then abandoned.
Then there's the issue of Peaceoholics. When Michael Neibauer first broke the story in the Examiner, last spring, the well-connected nonprofit found itself under great scrutiny because it was named as recipient of the emergency equipment in a terse emergency rulemaking notice that served as the only publicity the deal ever got. The reports confirm that the nonprofit served merely as a pass-through in a scheme concocted by Jannarone and Skinner. However, that's not to say that the group is beyond reproach in this affair. The Cheh report notes a document prepared by the nonprofit's co-founder, Ron Moten, which "suggested that the donation was conceived by Peaceoholics, which all of the evidence, including testimony from Mr. Moten himself, suggests to be untrue." Rather, Skinner "handled all aspects of the transaction, including identifying the shipping company and providing Peaceoholics with the funds needed to pay for shipping," meaning the group operated "essentially as a front."
The Cheh report recommends strengthening the city's surplus-property laws, improving asset-management procedures in the city procurement office, and providing more information in emergency rulemaking notices. The city's inspector general is also investigating the matter and expects to issue a report soon.
Nickles already issued his report, calling the transaction "legal and totally proper" and "in the service of important and legitimate public purposes." But was his report totally proper? The council reports note that two city lawyers, mayoral general counsel Chip Richardson and ethics counsel Thorn Pozen, were "tasked with the conduct" of Nickles' report. But both also had key roles in the fire truck affair itself.
In February, Skinner contacted both Pozen and Richardson, who proceeded to hammer out the legal niceties of the transaction. Richardson, the Cheh report says, in fact wrote to the procurement official in charge of surplus property, Wilbur Giles, apparently a fellow member (like Skinner and Fenty) of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity: "Nupe," he e-mailed, "hopefully there is a streamlined way to get it done quickly."
UPDATE, 2:50 P.M.: LL reached Nickles, who retorted long and hard. His main point: His investigation didn't find that any laws were broken, nor did the council's—and "I did it in about 10,000 hours less than the Cheh-Mendelson committee."
As for the rest of the reports' findings—that "so much effort—at the highest levels of District government—was expended to facilitate a transfer of surplus personal property without even a hint of potential benefit for the District government"—Nickles says, "I don't hear any legitimate concerns."
His other talking point: "This report has no credibility," he says, noting the council's " open deposition," secret executive sessions, and its recently disclosed audiotaping failure. "It's a political act" precipitated by a "worthless 12-year-old fire truck sitting on a back lot."
As to the reports' criticism of his supposed obstructionist tactics: "Baloney!" he says.
In fact, when LL detailed a specific charge of the Cheh report—that Fenty legislative aide Bridget Davis ordered key witness Giles not to testify, he went straight for the old barnyard epithet: "That's just bullshit," he said, noting that Giles later testified.
LL also asked Nickles if he knew that Richardson had once represented Skinner in private practice. "So what?" he said "I don't know if I was aware of that or not. I don't know if it's relevant."
Nickles puts great faith in the forthcoming IG report. "We tried from the outset to be cooperative even though I said to the council, 'What the hell are you doing here? Why can't you let the inspector general do their job?"....I have faith in Charlie Willoughby and the independent folks at the OIG."
UPDATE, 3:25 P.M.: Moten, the ex-Peaceoholics honco, says: "I'm no flunky."
Instead of acting as "essentially a front" for Skinner, Moten says he was aware of the whole operation and was happy to assist in a good deed. Like Nickles, he attacked the "lost tapes" and criticized the council for launching its probe when the IG was already investigating.
"If the fire truck was there right now, it would be helping the people of Haiti. But it got caught up in a political process," he says. "What is the process to finish the good deed we set out to do?"
UPDATE, 4:03 P.M.: Due to a misunderstanding on LL's part, he did not realize that there are actually two reports—one from Cheh's committee and one from Mendelson's. References above have been changed appropriately.
The Mendelson report shares much of the factual findings of the Cheh report; however, it focuses its findings and recommendations on the involved agencies under the committee's purview: Fire & EMS and the attorney general's office.
With regard to FEMS, the report finds a "lack of oversight on the part of leadership" —that, essentially, no one asked any questions about the giveaway—in addition to finding that employee travel rules weren't followed. With regard to OAG, the report is scathing, saying that Nickles' office "repeatedly attempted to frustrate if not outright obstruct efforts to gain information about this incident."
"Every effort was made to prevent access to information — from initial attempts to get answers to the most basic of questions, and throughout the investigation," the report says. "This lack of transparency not only provoked speculation, but also fostered a perception by the public of corruption and diminished faith in the government and its elected leaders."
The report goes on to slam Nickles' own report on the incident as "remarkable for its lack of detail" and further accuses the AG of interfering in the IG investigation he so anticipates.
"In sum, the Attorney General’s behavior has been antithetical to principles of open government and public accountability. Fundamental to this investigation was the Executive’s unwillingness and sometimes outright refusal to cooperate," says the report. "The Committee believes this ill-conceived obfuscation of the Council’s oversight role is a misplaced Executive priority that is in need of revision."
Photo by Darrow Montgomery