D.C. Council Hires Lawyer to Investigate Parks Contracts
Get ready for the Trout Report.
Nope—not referring to conditions of backwoods Montana streams here. LL refers to the investigative findings of attorney Robert P. Trout, whom the D.C. Council has engaged pro bono to investigate the irregular award of $80 million or more in parks projects to firms with ties to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
Trout was introduced to reporters this afternoon by councilmembers, including Chairman Vincent C. Gray, at-largers Kwame Brown and Michael A. Brown, and Ward 5's Harry Thomas Jr., who has been leading the charge on the parks issue.
Thomas said Trout, name partner in litigation firm Trout & Cacheris, will be charged with examining why millions of dollars were sent from the parks budget to the deputy mayor's budget and then to the D.C. Housing Authority—circumventing council oversight in the process. "Why was this pathway chosen in the first place to get these projects done?" he asked. "And why weren't these contracts sent to the council for review?" Added Gray, "Some of the testimony is stunning, shocking."
It will be Trout's job to pore through that testimony, gathered over the course of a half-dozen marathon hearings, as well as other documents and evidence and arrive at a conclusion as to where there was any malfeasance at play. He will be empowered to issue subpoenas and gather any further evidence necessary to complete his findings. Asked whether further fact-finding will be necessary, Trout said, "Our expectation is that there's been a great deal that's already been done, and we expect to build on that....[but] to the extent that we feel it appropriate to fill some holes, we will do that."
Trout, a former federal prosecutor, noted that he's done some investigative work for local government in the past. "Many years ago," he said, he was retained by the Montgomery County council to probe allegations of corruption in the county liquor control bureau. Trout says he did not have "any existing relationships" with any councilmember before Gray approached him; accompanying him at today's press conference were two other partners at his firm, Gloria B. Solomon and Amy Berman Jackson. (What's in it for Trout & Cacheris? "We made the judgment that it's appropriate to provide these services to the city council on a pro bono basis," he said. "That's the decision of my firm, and we're pleased to do it." Then again, look no further than the pair of cameras and handful of reporters gathered today.)
The first major item on Trout's agenda will be the anticipated March 24 testimony of Sinclair Skinner, the principal owner of Liberty Engineering and Design, and as hot-button a political personage as exists in local circles. After an extended fight to escape a council subpoena, a judge last week ordered Skinner to appear or incur stiff fines. Thomas said the testimony will be taken in open forum, like the rest of the parks testimony, and Trout and colleagues will be allowed to sit on the dais and directly question Skinner.
The backdrop of all this, of course, is a burgeoning election year, and councilmembers no doubt are hoping to inflict some political damage on Fenty's re-election hopes via the parks probe. And by hiring an independent counsel, legislators are hoping the findings won't be so easily dismissed as mere political vendetta. ("The chairman has really undertaken in these special investigations to give the council more credibility in what we do," Thomas said at one point.)
Trout's hiring gets a provisional OK from Attorney General Peter Nickles, who has dismissed certain previous council investigations as political witchhunts—notably the fishy firetruck affair. (Though he says attorney Robert S. Bennett "did a superb job" with his recent report, which of course ended in unprecedented sanctions for Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry.)
"I think these hearings have been politically motivated, but I trust that this individual, Mr. Trout, will be independent," Nickles said this afternoon. "He has a good reputation, and I know the firm and I know his partner. They're good lawyers, and I have nothing but good things to say about them."
But Nickles repeatedly said today that he saw no "smoking gun" thus far revealed in the contracts hearings. (LL's also seen no "smoking gun," but he's seen plenty of evasive answers and forgetfulness.) "My own view is that you don't investigate public officials unless there's some clear evidence of impropriety," he said. "You don't have investigations for the sake of having investigations."
Still: "We'll be fully cooperative with Mr. Trout," Nickles says, adding that he's already given "boxes" of documents to Thomas and other investigators. But "fully cooperative" has its limits. Asked whether he'd let city employees sit for further questioning on the matter, Nickles said, "Depends on how I perceive the investigation is proceeding."
How fast will Trout finish his work? Thomas said it is his "hope and expectation" to have a report released within 45 days but left the window open for a longer probe. He disputed a suggestion that the probe might drag into campaign season, noting Skinner's intransigence. "The timeline we're on is not by my doing," he said.
Gray also addressed that point: "If there's nothing going on here," he said, "I don't understand why there's a witness who's worked extremely hard to evade coming to a deposition."