- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An investigation by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) that “exonerated” Council Chairman and mayoral contender Vincent C. Gray in his use of a mega-developer to repair his home was based on a misrepresentation by the developer’s attorneys and a questionable timeline of events, records show.

An extensive review by The Washington Times of the OCF investigative file shows the agency accepted a series of invoices and payments, plus a written statement by the developer’s attorneys, that are contradicted by telephone records and documented conversations.

Meantime, Mr. Gray, who skirted D.C. building laws for months, racked up $1,800 in fines before applying for a permit on Monday for a fence and retaining wall that a separate company built around his Southeast home in 2008, city officials said.

On April 7, OCF ruled there was “no evidence to suggest that [Gray‘s] official actions would be influenced by” services and repairs performed last summer at his home by WCS Construction, a firm owned by major city developer W. Christopher Smith Jr., a friend and associate of Mr. Gray for 15 years.

The OCF investigation, prompted by Mr. Gray’s public statements after The Times exposed the repairs in November, focused on whether he paid market rate for the company’s services, according to the OCF report and attached documents.

The Times reported on Nov. 18 that Mr. Smith’s firm oversaw repairs at Mr. Gray’s $667,000 home in the Hillcrest area. The firm also oversaw a proposed $89,000 home renovation plan that included a tankless water heater, a marble-walled bathroom and a Jacuzzi, documents show. The renovation, sketched out by an architect in July and August, never transpired.

Mr. Gray denied receiving any favors or that there was any quid pro quo for his council votes approving developments run by WCS‘ affiliated company, William C. Smith Co. His attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., told investigators that “none of the services provided by Smith were provided with any understanding that those services would affect Mr. Gray’s official action, vote or judgment in any way.”

Mr. Gray did not receive any financial gain from Smith. Mr. Gray paid market rate for services provided to him by Smith,” Mr. Cooke wrote to investigators on Dec. 8.

Likewise, WCS insisted that it billed Mr. Gray “consistent with [the company’s] billing practices on other projects,” according to the firm’s attorney, Caroline Petro Gately.

She wrote that WCS was unaware that anyone was questioning the repairs until The Times’ story was published Nov. 18.

“Before that date, my client was unaware of any allegation that Chairman Gray’s use of WCS’s services was improper,” she said.

But telephone records, calls and notes of conversations contradict that statement. On Nov. 4, The Times called William C. Smith Co.’s project manager, Erik C. Johnson, to ask about the company’s work for Mr. Gray, telephone records show. The Times called Mr. Johnson after multiple sources said they heard him brag about the company helping Mr. Gray renovate his home.

The next day, The Times also called company Vice President Bradley J. Fennell, records show. In both cases, voice messages were left that described the nature of the inquiry. According to telephone records, from Nov. 4 to Nov. 17, The Times either called, left voice messages for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Fennell, sent text messages, or talked on the telephone to Mr. Johnson a total of 31 times.

Though he confirmed his company had done work for Mr. Gray, Mr. Johnson declined to offer specifics. But during a call by Mr. Johnson to a reporter on Nov. 10, he could be heard telling a company representative about the Times’ inquiries. According to notes of the call, he said the newspaper was “looking for an angle.”

A week before the story ran, William C. Smith Co. spokeswoman Carol Chatham left a message for a reporter that insisted The Times go through her to confirm information for the then-pending story.

Shortly after Mr. Johnson talked to The Times in November, he was reassigned and then later resigned, according to sources in the building industry who know him. He is now executive director of the Livable City Initiative in New Haven, Conn.

Neither Ms. Chatham, Mr. Fennell nor Mr. Johnson returned calls for this article.

Mr. Gray’s responses to OCF investigators also raise questions about the timing of his payment to WCS and the invoices he received. When visited by The Times in his office on Nov. 17, the day before the story was published, Mr. Gray first denied that William C. Smith Co. had done anything but oversee a renovation plan on which he never acted.

“All the work was done a couple years ago and had nothing to do with William C. Smith,” Mr. Gray told The Times. “If it doesn’t involve William C. Smith, then what does it matter who did it?”

Later that day, Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy acknowledged that subcontractors of the company had performed “minor repairs” at Mr. Gray’s house — some of which were completed without required permits, according to city officials. But she said at the time in a press release that OCF had “completely exonerated the chairman” for the work at his home.

On Monday, Ms. McCoy dismissed the matter entirely: “The Office of Campaign Finance has spoken and confirmed our assertions that the chairman engaged in no wrongdoing,” she said in an e-mail. “The matter is closed.”

As evidence to support his claim that he paid a fair price for the work, Mr. Gray gave OCF investigators copies of invoices. The OCF investigative file also contains a copy of a canceled check to WCS.

The documents show that all but one of the invoices were billed to WCS between July 30 and Aug. 31. Yet, a WCS general contractor’s invoice is not addressed to Mr. Gray until Oct. 30. The one invoice not billed to WCS during the summer was billed to the company on Oct. 28, the records show, but that invoice comes from District Electrical Services, a company whose business agent is Mr. Fennell, the William C. Smith Co. vice president.

Mr. Gray’s $10,051.04 check to WCS for electrical, carpentry, painting and cleaning services, and for the architect’s renovation plan, is dated Nov. 15 — 11 days after The Times began calling the company’s managers.

According to a letter from his attorney to OCF investigators, which requests that “documents provided by Mr. Gray not be disclosed publicly,” Mr. Gray’s check cleared on Nov. 17 — the day before The Times’ article, and the same day Mr. Gray said repairs at his house “had absolutely nothing to do with the company.”

The relationship between Mr. Gray and Mr. Smith dates to 1994, when Mr. Gray was executive director of Covenant House, a nonprofit homeless youth advocacy group now housed in THEARC, an arts and recreation center in Ward 7, where Mr. Gray was elected in 2004.

William C. Smith Co. controls more than $300 million in city-approved development projects in Ward 7 and in neighboring Ward 8. In September, Mr. Gray told constituents that he had raised substantial money to help finance THEARC, which was developed by William C. Smith Co.

Though Mr. Gray was cleared by OCF and paid no fines for the unauthorized work at his house last summer, another project from 2008 has resulted in punitive action.

For months, the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) asked Mr. Gray to apply for a permit for a 6-foot-high fence and a retaining wall he built in public space in 2008 without permits. An April 13 letter to Mr. Gray from Karina Ricks, associate DDOT director, enforcement for noncompliance would proceed “until a complete permit submission is made or the unpermitted work is removed from the public space.”

After receipt of three such letters, Mr. Gray, who hired former D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti to handle the matter, received two $300-a-day fines for three days last week, before filing a completed permit application on Monday, officials said.

The city has fined him $1,800 and a hearing before DDOT’s Public Space Committee in May will determine whether the agency can retroactively issue a permit for Mr. Gray’s fence and stone wall.