When Fenty started running for mayor, Skinner joined his campaign and helped organize his neighborhood walking tours. He gave Fenty street cred.
Shortly after Fenty took office, Skinner started a company called Liberty Engineering & Design and another called Liberty Law Group. Through Banneker Ventures, owned by Omar Karim—also a fraternity brother of Fenty’s from Howard—Skinner’s firms have received city contracts to work on renovating recreation centers, parks, and ball fields.
Skinner and Karim and their companies’ deals with the city have been at the center of a DC Council investigation involving $83 million in construction contracts. The council has accused the government of funneling funds to Fenty’s friends, many of whom are members of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi.
The council’s probe has resonated in business circles. Developers complain that Fenty’s friends get special treatment. “The playing field is not level,” says one.
“Whether you are part of his fraternity or not, there’s a sense that it’s tough to do business with the city,” says Barbara Lang, president of the DC Chamber of Commerce. “You’ve got to have a helping hand. If you are close to the mayor, you have a better chance.”
Neither Skinner nor Karim responded to requests for an interview. Their attorney, A. Scott Bolden, says: “If your friends are qualified and they share your view of the city, why should they not get contracts? That’s not unheard of in DC.”
I ask Fenty to describe his relationships with Karim and Skinner.
“Good friends,” he says.
Does he get involved in contracting?
In fact, Fenty is many steps removed from the contracting process. The contracts awarded to Banneker came through the semi-independent DC Housing Authority and its development arm. The DC Council discovered that Fenty’s lieutenants, notably David Jannarone in the economic-development agency, saw that the contracts went through. Even after the council canceled one $4.2-million Banneker contract, Jannarone made sure $2.5 million of it was paid—on Christmas Eve.
Fenty explains: “The contracts that went their way are 1 percent of the contracts that go to the little guys. And that is about 1 percent of the funds that go to big developers.”
True enough. Fenty and his development team are working on billions of dollars’ worth of construction projects across the city, especially along the Anacostia River. The parks contracts are chump change. But the appearance of favoritism sticks.
Does Fenty Run the DC Government by Intimidation?
The book on Fenty is that he rules by fear, that he has a hair-trigger temper, that he micromanages the government, that he second-guesses his agency chiefs.
“I heard those stories,” says George Hawkins, who ran Fenty’s environmental agency until the end of last year, when he became general manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority. “It was just the opposite. The only problem I had in bringing ideas to Fenty was that if he liked them, he wanted them done immediately.”
Upon taking office, Fenty said one of the keys to running a successful city was to hire great people. Granted, he’s had turnover at the top of the health, parks, and employment agencies. Michael Kelly’s departure as head of the DC Housing Authority to work with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City was a loss.
But in many cases, Fenty has aimed high, lured top-notch executives, and kept them.
Like him or not—and many don’t—attorney general Peter Nickles has been effective. Fenty’s lifelong friend, Nickles came to government after decades as a tough litigator for Covington & Burling. Has he come off as Fenty’s blunt-force instrument pushing executive power? Absolutely. But he also has won cases against slumlords, brothels, big banks, and used-car dealers.
“The District was a pushover,” he says. “Now people know we are not afraid to take cases to trial and duke it out.”
Nickles says he’s up for four more years.
Consider three younger stars:
Harriet Tregoning, Fenty’s planning director. Fifteen years ago at the EPA, she started the “smart growth” movement as an alternative to urban sprawl. She ran Maryland governor Parris Glendening’s planning agency and his smart-growth initiatives. She’s a national leader in urban development and planning.
“Fenty cares about results,” she says. “He gives his agency directors freedom to do things. Everyone knows what’s important to him: better schools and less crime.”
She sees her job as creating better, stronger neighborhoods.
“I have to help with the ‘pull factors’—how do we build a city with affordable housing, great services, and retail?”
Her ally is Gabe Klein, director of the transportation department. When Fenty hired him in late 2008, Klein had never worked in government. An entrepreneur, he had been an executive with Zipcar, the car-sharing company. Before that he was a top executive with Bikes USA, the nation’s largest bicycle retailer. When Klein first showed up at the department, he was wearing jeans.
“Don’t you own a tie?” then–city administrator Dan Tangherlini asked.
At the job for a year, Klein has been overseeing reconstruction of bridges, building bike lanes, managing the new circulator buses, planning for a light-rail system, making parking meters digital, and keeping traffic signals in order. He oversees a staff of 1,000.
“My job is to point the ship,” Klein says. He works in concert with Tregoning. “We want to create a point-to-point transit system with bikes and public transportation.”