Payback is a Hitch
Elections have consequences. For Keith Forney, the 2010 election had $703,083 worth of consequences, to be precise.
Forney was the general contractor who built the Deanwood Recreation Center, a glitzy 63,000-square-foot behemoth that boasts a swimming pool, basketball gym, and library. The center, completed in midsummer 2010, was one of the crown jewels of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s public building blitz.
“It could not be more important. It’s a promise we made to the community and a promise that we kept,” Fenty said at the ribbon cutting. “It’s good for Ward 7 and east of the river to have the biggest and best recreation center in the entire city.”
So strong was the Fenty administration’s commitment to Deanwood that Forney says it authorized him to spend $125,000 on its grand opening that June. His invoices show $15,000 for a “community outreach barbecue,” $51,000 for brochures and mailings, and $25,000 for “large format banners.” On top of that, the Fenty administration also authorized Forney’s firm to pay out nearly $600,000 for job training and violence prevention efforts nearby after someone shot out a window at the new rec center. Of that, $273,594 went to Peaceoholics, the politically connected anti-youth-violence group started by Ron Moten, a Fenty campaign strategist.
The grand opening was a hit. Hundreds turned out for free food and music; Fenty, who was then seen as likely to win re-election, took a bow for completing a long-sought project.
But there was a hitch in the festivities that foreshadowed future problems. Vince Gray, then the D.C. Council chairman and candidate for mayor, missed the opening part of the ceremonies, including the ribbon cutting and the speeches. Gray blamed Fenty’s office for changing the schedule without letting him know, a move he called “completely inappropriate.”
Turns out, missing the ribbon cutting didn’t hurt Gray’s chances. With the help of what federal prosecutors say was an illegal $650,000 “shadow campaign,” Gray easily dispatched Fenty in the 2010 contest. And that’s a problem for Forney, as the Gray administration has said there’s no way it’s going to pay him for the lavish grand opening, the Peaceoholics money, and other expenses it says are questionable, even if Fenty aides authorized them.
“None of the activities in the invoices qualify as payable under the construction contract approved by Council … qualify for payment from the capital dollars budgeted and appropriated for construction of the Deanwood Recreational Center,” Attorney General Irv Nathan wrote Forney last January.
That refusal has led Forney to lodge a complaint with the D.C. Contract Appeals Board, which could take a couple years to decide the outcome. But the invoices filed as part of the case give an unflattering glimpse into the frenzied city spending to Fenty allies leading up to the 2010 mayoral primary. It may not be a shadow campaign, but it still looks shady.
The most notable are the payments to Peaceoholics, which highlight the Fenty’s administration’s dogged persistence for finding ways to get the group paid. The Peaceoholics did extraordinarily well under Fenty, winning city contracts for everything from anti-youth-violence initiatives to $4.6 million for publicly funded housing projects that never materialized. Meanwhile, Moten was by far Fenty’s most enthusiastic supporter, taking on more and more responsibility for the campaign as it approached the September primary.
But by mid-2010 the cash for Peaceoholics had mostly been cut off by the D.C. Council, which was suspicious of Moten and his close ties to Fenty. In August of that year, Washington City Paper reported that Peaceoholics was broke and the Fenty administration was quietly trying to find $400,000 for the group from the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and the D.C. Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation. Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, then head of the Council’s human services committee, said publicly that he was not going to allow those payments to happen, and indeed, they did not. But that same month, Peaceoholics began receiving $54,714.80 a month from Forney for what his invoices say was a “violence prevention/job readiness initiative.”
Forney says a couple of incidents of youth violence at the new Deanwood center, including someone shooting out a window, led the Fenty administration to push for extra community outreach projects. He says officials from the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development asked him to add violence prevention and job training programs to his contract. Forney says they also suggested contractors for him to use, including Peaceoholics.
Another $120,000 went to the Congress Heights Community Training & Development Corp., whose executive director, Monica Ray, starred in a Fenty campaign ad. And Banneker Ventures, a project management company owned by Fenty fraternity brother Omar Karim that oversaw several park construction projects, billed the city an extra $10,000 a month to help manage the community outreach portion of Forney’s contract. A spokesman for DMPED says the city has already paid Banneker.
As for Peaceoholics, Moten says the money was put to proper use and that there was nothing wrong with how his group was paid: “Why shouldn’t a contractor give back to the community after making so much money?”
And Forney, who added a 10 percent markup for management to the community outreach contracts in his invoices to the city, says he also doesn’t see anything wrong with the District using a construction contract to fund politically connected organizations that have nothing to do with construction.
To the contrary, he says Fenty showed true leadership by cutting through red tape to address a pressing problem. “The violence was real, it was happening, sometimes you act, you put things in place instantly,” says Forney, adding that there were no other instances of violence at Deanwood while those community outreach contracts were awarded through the end of 2010.
Forney says he fully expected to be reimbursed for payments for the grand opening and the community outreach programs. After all, he says, he was doing what the city asked him. “It was DMPED employees who told us what to do on every occasion, from start to finish,” Forney says.
Emails obtained by LL through the Freedom of Information Act back this up. In July 2010, Forest Hayes, then director of operations for DMPED, emailed back and forth with Jesus Aguirre, then director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, about Forney’s role providing community outreach programs at Deanwood. Aguirre initially resisted the idea, saying, “programming we’ll keep in house.”
Wrong! Hayes replied: “Not trying to get in your way get out of our lane. However, Neil has instructed me to move forward.” That “Neil” is almost certainly former City Administrator Neil Albert.
Other emails show that in November 2010, Hayes emailed an assistant and told her to call Forney and have him bring a $5,000 check to the Deanwood Cowboys, a youth football team. Hayes, who is now working for the city of Gary, Ind., did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Fenty.
So fault Forney if you like for having poor judgement as to what’s an acceptable part of a construction contract. But $703,083 seems like a high price to pay for following orders.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery