Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Finding a reliable company to do home repair and renovation can be a headache for any property owner. But D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray fared better than most when a politically connected megadeveloper that works with city agencies arranged for what he says were minor repairs and prepared plans to renovate his home last summer.

It was an unusual job for William C. Smith & Co., which routinely works with D.C. agencies, community centers and schools to build affordable housing and commercial and recreational space in distressed communities. The company’s Web site,, does not include home repair or renovation in its portfolio.

What the company does have, according to council documents, is about $300 million of real estate development east of the Anacostia River — an area of the city that Mr. Gray has represented.

In an interview in his city hall office Monday, Mr. Gray at first denied that the company did any work for him, aside from arranging for an architect to design a renovation that he said has yet to commence.

Later in the day, a spokeswoman called back to say that the company repaired a door to the roof of Mr. Gray’s 2,800-square-foot home and installed a lock on his iron gate and exterior floodlights.

On Tuesday, Mr. Gray’s office said that William C. Smith & Co. supervised and received a payment of $5,051.04 for work at Mr. Gray’s home in July and August, including power-washing his driveway, painting his family room and installing wiring for a television. Mr. Gray said he paid the company an additional $5,000 for “architectural services for proposed renovation.”

Mr. Gray confirmed that he did not pay for the work until this month — after The Washington Times began asking employees of William C. Smith & Co. about the work, and a month after the paper filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking permits on the property. He declined to show any invoices or receipts.

Still later Tuesday, Mr. Gray offered to show canceled checks for the work and explained that W. Christopher Smith Jr., the son of the company’s founder, is a longtime friend and that he was chosen as the contractor because of the personal relationship.

“I have known Chris Smith a long time, I know the quality of the work,” he said. He also challenged the suggestion that ordinary residents would not be able to get minor home repairs handled by William C. Smith & Co. or a subsidiary.

Public records show that no work permits have been issued for Mr. Gray’s address since he bought his Southeast Washington house in the 1980s.

Carol Chatham, a spokeswoman for William C. Smith & Co. who earlier this month requested that all inquiries be directed to her, did not respond to numerous calls Tuesday for comment.

But a person answering the company’s main telephone line indicated that the company does not offer repair or renovation services to single-family homeowners. The company’s Web site does not say whether it employs an in-house architect.

Mr. Gray’s ties to William C. Smith & Co. go back at least to 2005, when he served for two years on the board of Building Bridges Across the River, a nonprofit organization formed by the company to develop an arts and recreation center, known as THEARC, on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast.

Housed in THEARC is Covenant House Washington, an organization dedicated to serving homeless and at-risk youth. Mr. Gray was Covenant House’s first executive director, serving from 1994 until he was elected to the council representing Ward 7 in 2004. He was elected chairman in 2006 and has publicly stated that he is considering a bid for mayor next year.

Mr. Gray said on Monday that he paid for all services received, and that he resented any implication of impropriety.

“I don’t want to sound holier than thou,” he said, “but I take my integrity very seriously.”

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the arrangement “sounds like a favor, because the company provided services that it doesn’t usually provide to an elected official who is in a position to approve city contracts.”

“It’s clearly inappropriate,” she added.

Mr. Gray bought his house, in the well-groomed Hillcrest neighborhood, in 1984, city records show. An iron gate lines the perimeter of the stately brick home, with two stories above ground and a walk-out basement and garage, which sits on a 12,390-square-foot corner lot.

The property features stone retaining walls, a walkway of brick pavers from front to rear, large stone posts at the head of the driveway and multicolored terra cotta tiles on the roof and the front dormer.

Mr. Gray said that two years ago, he had exterior work performed on his property. He declined to identify the scope of work, the contractor or the cost, insisting only that William C. Smith & Co. did not do the work and that he paid for the work in full.

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs requires permits for a multitude of home-improvement projects, including building fences or decks or performing wiring for electrical work or lighting.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act filed by The Washington Times on Oct. 7, DCRA wrote on Nov. 9 that it “has concluded the search for all permits issued [at Mr. Gray’s house] and nothing was found.”

When informed of the letter, Mr. Gray replied, “Well isn’t it up to the contractor to pull permits?” He also said The Washington Times has no evidence that any of the work at his home required a permit.

DCRA spokesman Michael Rupert said Tuesday that property owners are primarily responsible for obtaining permits, and contractors are secondarily responsible. If DCRA determines that illegal work was performed, Mr. Rupert said, the consequences include a $2,000 fine for the owner and potential loss of license for the company that performed the work.

Mr. Gray said that should anyone question his integrity, he has no problem showing documentation to prove that his home repairs and improvements and plans for renovation are aboveboard.

“It would be bothersome to anyone to have their integrity questioned,” he said. “Why am I being singled out?”

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