Who Do You Know?
We all know Keith Lomax can drive.
When former Mayor Adrian Fenty was in office, Lomax used to chauffeur Hizzoner around in a District-owned vehicle. Then the media made a fuss, and Fenty apologized for letting his friend and former substitute teacher drive him around in violation of city laws.
What’s less clear is what Lomax does when it comes to city construction contracts these days. His firm, RBK Construction, a former landscaping company, blossomed into a construction company with a steady stream of District contracts under Fenty, and it continues to land city work now. It got a $3.4 million subcontract at Anacostia Senior High School during Fenty’s last year in office and has been paid more than $2.2 million as a subcontractor on three other school construction jobs in recent years. It’s also part of the management team for the $100 million renovation of Cardozo High School.
But no one—not Lomax, not the general contractors who have hired RBK, not the city officials who oversee school construction spending—is willing and/or able to say with any level of detail what RBK Construction has done for all that money. It’s an uneasy silence that raises uncomfortable questions about whether city officials who oversee school construction are oblivious to potential problems involving a contractor who once had very powerful ties, or are just looking the other way.
Consider RBK’s contract at Anacostia. A drywall contractor says he submitted a bid to Forrester Construction, the general contractor on the project, which was accepted. But there was a catch, says the contractor (who asked not to be named because he feared losing future city business). Forrester asked the drywall contractor to provide bonding on the job, which is like insurance, for both his company and RBK Construction. RBK would be the official subcontractor and the drywall contractor would, in turn, have a subcontract with RBK.
The contractor says he’s done dozens of city construction jobs and never been asked to be part of such a setup. But his bonding company said it was okay, and the amount he bid for the project stayed the same, so he agreed.
“Basically nothing changed from both parties, just different names,” the contractor says of the contract he submitted to Forrester versus the one he signed with RBK.
Forrester’s own records, which LL obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show RBK has been paid $2.85 million through August of this year, with $2.43 million being paid to one single subcontractor: the drywall contractor. Which means RBK may have kept about $420,000.
So what did the company do for the money? The drywall contractor says he hasn’t a clue. He says RBK had an employee who was at the Anacostia job site on a regular basis, but didn’t do any drywall work—neither labor nor managing labor.
“Our crew is capable of doing it on our own,” says the contractor.
Representatives from Forrester didn’t return a call seeking comment. The company has come under fire from city officials on a separate matter—for running what one councilmember called a “sham” joint venture with another company—on the Anacostia job.
Lomax hung up on LL twice and kicked LL out of RBK’s office in Ward 8 when LL tried to ask him about the arrangement.
“There’s a billion dollars going around D.C., and you’re worried about one company,” says Lomax.
City records show the drywall contractor has direct contracts with general contractors on other school projects, without a middleman like RBK. In fact, the drywaller says that after the Anacostia project was underway, he signed a direct contract with Forrester on the same Anacostia job for $22,000, in addition to the work with RBK. Forrester’s records show that the second contract grew to more than $745,000 through change orders, a 3,386 percent increase.
Forrester’s records also signal that RBK was the only firm with an arrangement like this. All other subcontractors on the job did at least 60 percent of the work on their contract themselves, the records show.
Meanwhile, LL’s FOIA request for RBK’s certified payroll sheets on $5 million worth of school construction subcontracts, including the work at Anacostia, produced exactly one document. It showed that RBK hired eight “common laborers” at $15 an hour in August to work at the Anacostia job. Total wages paid: less than $6,000.
When LL first received the records and began asking questions, a spokesman for the Department of General Services said there was nothing amiss. There were no certified payroll sheets for RBK because the company had contracted the majority of its work to other subcontractors “pursuant to its contract,” said DGS spokesman Darrell Pressley.
But after a few more rounds of questioning, DGS said that after reviewing RBK’s records, it was “evident” that RBK did not do 35 percent of its own work itself, which Pressley says was DGS’s “standard” for “trade subcontractors.” (DGS did respond to follow up questions about whether its “standards” are codified into law, regulations, or just some kind of common practice.)
It’s unclear why the city would have approved plans to include RBK as a “trade subcontractor” on school projects. Courtland Cox, a private contractor who helps DGS manage school construction projects, says Lomax “tries to think of himself as a general contractor,” not as someone who specializes in a particular trade.
It’s also unclear what the city is going to do about RBK not meeting DGS’ “standards,” as DGS Director Brian Hanlon did not respond to requests for comment. (Those questions were asked before Hurricane Sandy closed D.C. government for two days this week.)
This isn’t the first time RBK’s involvement in city contracts has raised red flags. Last year the city auditor noted the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, formerly headed by now-City Administrator Allen Lew, didn’t have records to support six purchase orders to RBK for nearly $10 million.
Also last year, an independent investigator commissioned by the council noted RBK’s success in winning park construction contracts a few years ago. When the city farmed out the selection process to a firm owned by Omar Karim, a fraternity brother of Fenty’s, RBK landed two city contracts. One was a $10 million renovation at Barry Farms it was to share with Forrester; the other was a $1.8 million contract for a park construction job in Chevy Chase it was to manage on its own. Attorney Robert Trout said RBK’s selection for the $1.8 million project “raises questions,” because another firm had a higher overall score after their bids were evaluated. (It’s not clear if RBK ever did any work on those projects, as the council cancelled Karim’s oversight of the parks projects once lawmakers discovered Fenty’s administration wasn’t submitting them for council approval.)
Former D.C. Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown announced in 2009 that he was going to launch an investigation into whether RBK deserved to be given special preference when bidding on city projects as a resident-owned business. Brown’s announcement came after Lomax’s habit of driving Fenty around was made public and a handful of media reports raised questions about whether Lomax lived in D.C. or Prince George’s County.
Lomax currently rents an office on Minnesota Avenue SE in Ward 8. When Lomax renewed RBK’s local business certification in 2011, he listed the office space as his home address. (When LL was briefly allowed inside, he saw offices on the first floor and in the basement, but wasn’t given the full tour.)
Lomax also owns a home in Fort Washington, Md., which is often listed as his home address in court filings. When he registered a $76,000 BMW convertible in Maryland in 2009, he listed the Fort Washington address as his home address. RBK is also certified as a minority-owned business with the Maryland Department of Transportation, which lists Lomax’s Fort Washington home as the company’s address.
RBK has also had financial trouble of late. Last year, both Lomax and RBK were sued by a PNC bank in D.C. Superior Court for not paying back a $300,000 loan. He didn’t show up to court to fight the lawsuit and was ordered to pay $336,593.97, court records show. In Maryland last year, he was sued for breach of contract and ordered to pay more than $137,000 by a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge.
None of these flags, nor the departure of Fenty, seem to have dimmed RBK’s viability within the close-knit world of public school construction. DGS’s Pressley says the agency is taking a look at “some of its opportunities—particularly in Parks and Recreation—that will allow firms like RBK and others to increase their business capacity and grow their companies.”
RBK’s share of the Cardozo High School contract is worth $351,000. The contract, with Sigal Construction, was awarded by the Gray administration last year.
Sigal’s owner, Gerry Sigal, did not respond to a request for comment, leaving it unclear why a well-established general contractor would need RBK’s help managing a project similar to several others Sigal has managed on its own.
Left completely unexplained, regardless, is this: How does a company carrying such baggage, whose biggest political patron was voted out of office two years ago, continue to win these types of contracts? Maybe RBK is just that good at whatever it is they do. Or maybe once a connected contractor makes its way to the buffet known as D.C. public school spending, that company is there for good. In other words, when it comes to D.C. government business, it’s not just who you know, it’s also who you knew.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery