Thursday, November 5, 2009

A D.C. Council hearing Thursday on tens of millions of dollars in housing authority contracts awarded to friends of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is putting legislators on a collision course with an embattled administration and a litigation-minded attorney general, council members said this week.

Several members cautioned that a pattern of resistance by the Fenty administration comes amid worsening relations with legislators and threatens to plunge the city into court battles lasting well into next year.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said the council is prepared for obstruction in its latest probe.

“We have seen resistance on every front,” Mr. Gray said. “I won’t be shocked if we are forced to issue subpoenas.”

The council may not have to look farther than an investigation by its own auditor to see what lies ahead as it embarks on its investigation of the administration. D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols has spent the last year attempting to review development deals conducted by a pair of defunct city-run corporations.

Despite two court orders granting her unrestricted access, D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles has gone to the court of appeals seeking to halt the orders, hinting he could take the case even further if he loses.

Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, said the auditor’s thwarted efforts provide a blueprint of what to expect from Mr. Nickles. “It’s obstructionist even to force us to issue subpoenas,” Ms. Cheh said. “[Mr. Nickles] labels everything ‘privileged and confidential’ and then tries to wear you down in court.”

Mr. Nickles has objected to the auditor’s document request as too “burdensome” and said that the mayor’s legal privileges call for a more deliberate approach to releasing so many documents.

After revelations last week that the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation bypassed the council and provided funds to the D.C. Housing Authority and its subsidiary through the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, council members said they are hoping that city officials voluntarily appear before them during Thursday’s hearing and provide details on the unusual transactions.

Of special interest to Ms. Cheh and others is how District-based Banneker Ventures, run by Mr. Fenty’s fraternity brother Omar A. Karim, acted as project manager on $170 million worth of parks and recreation projects, some of which also were subcontracted to companies controlled by longtime friends of the mayor, Sinclair Skinner and Keith Lomax.

“How did that contract get to Banneker?” Ms. Cheh said. “Then [Banneker] picks the subcontractors? We need to know more about these relationships. Are they steering contracts? Is that what’s going on?”

Fenty administration officials have defended the transfer saying it was proper and has helped projects move forward.

Council members Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat, and Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, chairmen of committees overseeing the questioned projects, are similarly braced for battle.

Mr. Brown, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, said he expects the Fenty administration to force subpoenas and the attorney general to challenge subpoenas in court. “If they think they are going to litigate until we go away, they are wrong,” he said.

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