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A 30-year veteran of municipal management in cities across the country, City Administrator Robert Bobb doesn’t lack for high-powered contacts. If you need a consultant on economic development, Bobb can rattle off the best in the industry. A fix-it specialist for broken agencies? Bobb, again, is your man.
Since taking office in 2003, Bobb himself has deployed his Rolodex in solving pressing D.C. government problems. Nothing wrong with that—as long as you comply with the web of rules governing the hiring of contractors.
In a June 3 report, D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols charges that Bobb ignored those rules. Among Nichols’ findings:
•Bobb allegedly approved a $25,000 payment to Oakland, Calif.–based consultants Melinda Yee-Franklin and Lily Hu to help plan the mayor’s October 2004 trip to China. Nichols charges that the California team began planning for the trip without a written contract.
•E-mails from Bobb and his staff appear to have steered a contract for up to $90,000 to Jane Brunner, a labor lawyer and Oakland City Council member.
•A $75,000 contract for consultant Ira Sockowitz to help guide legislation for a new baseball stadium was not competitively bid.
Hu and Brunner are professional acquaintances of Bobb’s. There is no evidence that Bobb benefited personally from the contracts.
If Bobb came to D.C. to rig up some sweetheart deals, he is furthering a grand tradition. The memories of the days when former mayor and current Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry used city hall as a money mill for his friends are still fresh. In those days, access and loyalty—as well as the ability to look the other way—equaled professional advancement.
The list of contracting debacles associated with Barry could fill a book; in fact, it has filled a book, Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. Highlights of the old days: A heating-oil company handpicked by Barry to supply public-housing projects and schools double-billed the city for fuel-oil deliveries. Also, according to Dream City, one Barry crony, Cornelius Pitts, owned a run-down hotel that became the city’s main homeless shelter. Through a series of no-bid contracts, Pitts pocketed about $16 million over four years.
By comparison, Bobb’s contracting scandal ranks pretty low on the slime meter. His actions can’t be ignored, but the media concern over several relatively small, one-time contracts shows how far the city has traveled since the Barry days.
But less than $200,000 in alleged contracting improprieties isn’t enough to excite members of the D.C. Council, several of whom would like to take a bite out of Bobb and his boss, Mayor Anthony A. Williams. At least five of the panel’s 13 councilmembers covet the city’s top job and can be counted on to exploit any opening in the mayor’s flank.
So the June 27 hearing of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, chaired by mayoral hopeful and Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, presented a great opportunity to take some shots. Yet declared mayoral candidate and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty took a pass on the meeting. So did Council Chairman Linda Cropp, another possible mayoral candidate.
For most of the hearing, only Orange and At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown were around to grill Bobb.
The only other member to appear, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, expressed a decided lack of outrage.
Patterson arrived at the hearing armed with a legal response to the auditor’s report, written by the Office of Contracting and Procurement (OCP). Before entering the chamber, she was spotted caucusing with the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Gregory McCarthy. LL would never imply that Patterson was carrying water for the administration, but as she began her questioning, the mayor’s general counsel, Leonard Becker, admonished LL to pay attention.
Patterson argued directly from the OCP memo that Bobb’s then– chief of staff, Edward Reiskin, had exercised proper authority when he approved the contracts in question. She also gave Bobb the opportunity to highlight how he had made “improvements to the contracting process.”
Even Barry could find members to defend his administration, but that’s not to say Patterson is a lackey. For her, Bobb’s transgressions simply do not represent a serious breach of the public trust.
“I think the point that the city administrator made is that there was no personal gain here by the city administrator,” Patterson told LL. “If you just measure these things by dollar value, it does not raise to the level of what we usually get concerned about.”
Patterson has seen a lot worse. And so have the residents of the city.
D.C. seems to have reached a point when a scandal involving the mayor’s top guy is more about bickering over fine points of procurement law than waiting for the announcement of charges from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Bobb’s alleged sole-source contracts—first reported by WTOP radio—and the subsequent investigation by Nichols provide a valuable window into Bobb’s way of doing business. Preferential contracts for acquaintances are against the rules—even if they do result in good service, as Bobb contends in this case.
But for the most part, this scandal isn’t about abusing the public trust. It’s mostly a battle of egos involving Nichols and Bobb.
The showdown was in motion long before Nichols released her June 3 report. She revealed her concerns about the contracts at a May 9 council hearing called by Orange. Administration officials said the public release of the findings—before Nichols provided a draft report for Bobb’s review—was a clear breach of protocol. Williams called her actions “unprofessional.”
At the June 27 hearing, Bobb said Nichols presented her “allegations of impropriety…without any advance notice to the executive branch and in disregard of settled auditing practices.” He refused to acknowledge that his actions even gave an appearance of a conflict of interest.
In her report, Nichols summed up the whole incident this way: “The City Administrator’s action of identifying friends and associates, principally from Oakland, California, for non-competitive, sole source ‘deals’ with the District government resulted in transactions that were not: above reproach, arms length, completely impartial, and free from the appearance of preferential treatment.”
She called Bobb’s contracting practices “highly irregular” and said his office “failed to demonstrate that any competition [for the desired services] existed.”
Nichols’ report also includes two potentially damaging e-mails, which Orange and Brown repeatedly referred to during the hearing.
In a Feb. 28, 2004, e-mail to Oakland City Council Member Brunner, Bobb wrote that “we have an opportunity for you to meet with labor and a specific contractual opportunity for you to evaluate all of our employment programs. My team are aware of my desire to use your services.”
On May 22, 2004, Reiskin’s e-mail made it clear that Brunner’s contract was a done deal. “The [City Administrator] is hiring the services of Jane Brunner…to develop a pre apprenticeship training program,” Reiskin wrote to Department of Employment Services (DOES) Director Gregg Irish. “[Bobb] would like DOES to fund this activity (since we don’t have the money for this kind of work).”
Nichols may be looking for payback. The auditor applied for the job of D.C. inspector general, and John A. Wilson Building sources say she felt the administration didn’t take her application seriously. After submitting her application, says Nichols, she withdrew it from competition. According to Nichols, the brief bid did not prompt the hard line on Bobb. “That has nothing to do with it,” she says.
At the hearing, Bobb took no personal responsibility for the contracting irregularities. He blamed “innocent mistakes” by “inexperienced staff” for any alleged errors.
Reiskin was Bobb’s chief of staff during most of the contracting debacle. He sat near Bobb at the hearing as he noted “technical and procedural errors” by staff on three different occasions.
When Reiskin was asked why he didn’t raise any questions about the Brunner contract, he replied, “I was under the assumption that all the necessary steps that needed to be taken had been taken.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl is an essential stop for just about every politician in town.
No D.C. pol would dream of running for office without chomping down on an Ali-family half-smoke and mingling with voters. The U Street eatery has been a community gathering place since it opened in 1958, when the area was still the black cultural center of a segregated city.
The Ali family’s neutrality in political matters has been as reliable as the promise that their chili dogs “bite back.”
But for the first time, the Bowl has endorsed a candidate: David Bowers, who is running for the at-large D.C. Council seat held by Phil Mendelson.
Family matriarch Virginia Ali says that this time she couldn’t take a pass, because of the close relationship between Bowers and her youngest son, Nizam Ali. Bowers and Nizam Ali attended the University of Virginia together. Bowers also spent some time behind the counter at the Bowl in his younger days. “He’s slung his share of half-smokes,” Nizam Ali says.
The endorsement isn’t just a polite family nod. Blue-and-white Bowers signs are everywhere, and Chili Bowl staff says Bowers and his political brain trust often conduct skull sessions over burgers and fries.
Mendelson says he spoke to Nizam Ali before Bowers’ June 22 announcement at the eatery and urged the Alis to remain neutral in the race.
“Phil’s a great guy. He’s a friend,” Virginia Ali says. “But David is practically a family member.”—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.