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Ask William Walker III why he’s visited the Dominican Republic beach town of Sosúa dozens of times in the past few years, and this is what he’ll tell you:
“What I fell in love with is the peace and serenity of the ocean,” he says. “Being able to swim and fish. Wasn’t a lot of bureaucracy.”
Maybe not down there. But Walker’s trips to Sosúa have sure caused a bureaucratic extravaganza around these parts. The 51-year-old Upper Marlboro resident says he set events into motion that nearly led to the city giveaway of a surplus fire truck and ambulance to the Dominican town. Those shadowy events have since prompted a cursory non-investigation by Attorney General Peter J. Nickles and more thoroughgoing probes by Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby, the D.C. Council, and local reporters.
Walker is scheduled to appear Thursday at a hearing held jointly by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson on why, exactly, usable city emergency equipment was almost shipped to Sosúa with no official explanation save for a cryptic line printed in the March 20 D.C. Register—“the Chief Procurement Officer or his designee may donate surplus supplies to Peaceaholics Inc., a nonprofit organization.”
At the hearing, Walker says, he plans to tell his story.
It’s a story that starts with a tragedy. Walker, a native Washingtonian, came back to the District from Hollywood in 1991 in order to marry the woman he loved. Before they could return, she died on the Suitland Parkway, struck and killed by the driver of a van being chased by D.C. cops. A pair of 14-year-olds were on a joyride.
After hearing the young driver apologize, Walker says he channeled his grief into his faith and into service. “He stood up in the courtroom, and he said, ‘I didn’t mean to kill your wife. I didn’t mean to hurt your family,’” he recalls. “I’ve been working with kids ever since then.”
He co-founded Faith Productions Inc., a nonprofit outfit that’s drawn on his Hollywood expertise to create numerous youth-oriented programs for District television. And in his day job, he’s worked as a youth counselor in places like Oak Hill and as an AIDS educator. On the side, he’s mentoring kids from east-of-the-river neighborhoods. Walker, a Navy man, also has a hobby: scuba diving. In early 2006, he and some buddies made a diving trip to the Dominican Republic, including to Sosúa—his first trip to the seaside outpost.
There he met local kids on the beach, and Walker says his encounters stirred something within him. “I felt guilty for living in a place where we have an abundance of things,” he says. “And these people don’t even have food to eat.” Within months, he had put together an exchange of sorts, where Walker and his organization brought 10 D.C. kids down to the beach town.
The event, held over Thanksgiving weekend in 2007, was organized around a boxing tournament, Walker says, because “that’s a drawing card for the Dominicans.” The point of the visit, he says, was to help promote AIDS awareness in a place where sex tourism is rampant. “There are a lot guys who go down there for sex with kids. What I created was for youth….We kicked off World AIDS Day there.”
Helping with the arrangement was Sosúa’s mayor, Vladimir Céspedes, and in the spirit of exchange, Walker offered to help him out however he could. On an earlier visit to Sosúa’s city hall, he got a glimpse of the municipality’s emergency vehicles. Old, rusted, and “raggedy” is how Walker describes those rigs. That sparked Walker’s imagination: Perhaps the District has an old fire truck or ambulance to give the town? Walker had a grand gesture in mind—press conferences, bringing D.C. kids back down to Sosúa, mayoral handshakes, the whole nine yards.
Toward that end, Céspedes came to D.C. just before the boxing tournament. Walker requested a meeting with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty about a possible vehicle donation; what he ended up getting was a Wilson Building sit-down with Pat Ellwood, the District’s longtime protocol chief, and David Jannarone, who is the city’s development director and a top aide in the office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. Ellwood was there because she’s in charge of handling foreign dignitaries; Jannarone was there, Walker was told, because he was the guy who could make the donation happen.
“Jannarone said it’s possible, that this could be done,” Walker says.
Over the next few months, Walker worked with Jannarone to get it done. In June 2008, Jannarone, with the help of Office of Contracting and Procurement officials, found him his equipment—an ambulance and a fire truck. Walker has another term for the vehicles on offer: “garbage.” They had been essentially stripped; the fire truck didn’t even have an engine. “You couldn’t even move them from the lot,” Walker says, and that was unacceptable. “I refused to give somebody something that was nonfunctional, inoperative.…I refused to do it. I refused to give that fire truck.”
Walker informed Jannarone that something else would have to be done. “He got an attitude with me,” Walker remembers, “like, ‘That’s all we have.’” That was in July 2008—then communications with Jannarone ceased.
That summer, Walker headed down to the DR for one of his now-regular trips. On his flight were a number of other District guys, he says. They were headed down to hang out with Sinclair Skinner, who was already on site.
Skinner, of course, has a long, checkered political history in this town. He’s an old friend of Fenty’s, dating back to their days in the Kappa Alpha Psi frat at Howard University. He ran the field operation for Fenty’s mayoral campaign, and ran into heat for his race-baiting tactics in local politics. These days, as a consultant and aspiring developer, the former proprietor of a defunct dry cleaners is doing well for himself. He’s bought a $700,000 house in Crestwood, blocks from Fenty. He tools around in a sports car. He’s often seen, with Jannarone, at the monthly happy hours sponsored by the deputy mayor’s office, where developers and city officials schmooze at various hip bars, often late into the night. He was seen at the annual big-box convention in Las Vegas last month, too, among the Fenty entourage.
Jannarone has personal Fenty connections of his own; before entering city service, he worked for Roadside Development, a well-connected local firm, and he also served briefly on his local advisory neighborhood commission—alongside Shawn Fenty, who represented the same district his brother had.
Once in Sosúa, the airplane dudes had a hard time finding their way around town, so Walker helped them out. When they found Skinner, the Fenty buddy greeted Walker, saying he knew he had taken kids down to the island.
Walker could see that Jannarone and Skinner had taken a liking to the place. Shortly after Jannarone met Céspedes at the Wilson Building, he took the Dominican mayor up on an invitation to visit. He liked it enough to go back again, according to Walker, who alleges additional Dominican visits by Jannarone and Skinner. Walker knows this, he says, due to his close relationship with Céspedes, who would let him know when they were in town.
LL’s attempts to reach Céspedes failed. Jannarone declined comment through a spokesperson; Skinner could not be reached.
Walker didn’t think much of the fire truck deal until the following March. That’s when he ran into Peaceoholics founder Ron Moten outside Cole’s Cafe in Anacostia. The two aren’t the best of buddies—they know of each other by reputation, since both work with local youth.
But Moten knew Walker well enough to brag a little about his latest endeavor: working with the city to send a fire truck and ambulance—a nice, operable fire truck and ambulance—down to this needy little Dominican Republic beach town.
Walker, who had heard nothing about the donation in months, flipped out: “I said, ‘How in the ham salad sandwich are you donating a fire truck and an ambulance, and you’ve never even been to the Dominican Republic?’”
He called Jannarone, who denied any involvement in the matter. Walker recalls, “He says, ‘Bill, I wouldn’t do that; Skinner took it out of my hands.’”
Shortly thereafter, the Peaceoholics line was published in the D.C. Register. The Examiner’s Michael Neibauer spotted the anomalous giveaway and launched a media inquiry that generated much heat on Fenty, but little light. Nickles decided to bring the rigs back to the District from a Miami dock; he then issued a report clearing the mayor’s office of wrongdoing—failing to mention Jannarone’s or Skinner’s roles in the saga. Their roles were outed only after an April report from DCWatch’s Dorothy Brizill.
Walker, for his part, says he’s less upset about Jannarone’s and Skinner’s backhanded ways—though he’s plenty upset about that—as he is that the rigs never made it to the island.
“This had the opportunity to be something very good for kids,” he says. “For whatever reason, Jannarone and [Skinner] decided to do things the way they did it. If they had come to me [and said], ‘Bill, your nonprofit doesn’t have the money to do this,’ or whatever, my response would have been, ‘Why not?’…I’m not interested in being in the newspaper or being on the news. I could have done that many times….And another thing I don’t understand: why they’re being so secretive about everything.”
Secrecy accomplishes a couple of objectives: It helps distance a top city hall official (Jannarone) and a long-controversial political crony (Skinner) from a questionable transaction. It also permits a scapegoating of folks less involved in this mess—people like Deputy Fire Chief Ronald Gill, who visited Sosúa to train officials there on the equipment, and Robin Booth, an Office of Contracting and Procurement official who helped prepare the equipment for transfer. And that goes for Ron Moten, who Walker calls a “pawn.”
Walker is mystified why those folks have taken much of the heat: “Moten, if he had anything to do with it, it was on the tail end. Booth, if she had anything to do with it, she was following orders. Gill, if he had anything to do with it, it was because someone said, we need you to do A, B, and C. Those three people did not initiate nothing. They’re the ones hung out to dry.”
According to a council source, both Jannarone and Skinner are likely to be deposed in connection with their investigation in the coming weeks. Those depositions, as well as those taken last week from Booth and Gill, will remain sealed until the council committees doing the investigation vote to release them. That will likely happen when the council’s final report is made, likely shortly after legislators return from their summer recess.
For all the drama, Walker still wants to give those rigs away. And he wouldn’t mind doing it with Moten.
“My main concern and hope that will come out of this is that hopefully Peaceoholics and I can work together to try to get this fire truck down there, to take kids down there, and continue doing what it is we started doing in the first place,” he says.
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