Fort Myer Construction Corp. faced certain death. The company had pleaded guilty in early April 2003 to bribing nine D.C. Department of Public Works employees. Between 1995 and 1998, city workers in cahoots with Fort Myer had inflated the cost of asphalt for construction jobs, allowing the company to overbill the government. Soon after the guilty plea, the federal government barred the corporation for 18 months from receiving any federal contracts. Then, the head of the District’s Office of Contracting and Procurement decided he wanted to draw blood, too. Jacques Abadie began proceedings on April 25 to block the company from receiving any city-financed contracts or subcontracts for three years. His final decision to debar the company came on July 8, 2003.
Road paving is the heart of Fort Myer’s business, and back then, District government contracts constituted more than 40 percent of its income. Abadie’s action jeopardized the corporation’s survival—not to mention the livelihood of more than 300 people who worked for it. The debarment had to be fought.
Fort Myer took its case to the city’s Contract Appeals Board, a panel that mediates disputes involving D.C. government contracts. But, as anyone who knows anything about the District’s bureaucracy knows, waiting for that board to rescue the company would have been like riding a barge on the C&O Canal. The corporation needed a more dependable, first-rate fixer. It called Kerry S. Pearson.
“He is a well-respected individual who understands how the D.C. government works and [who understands] the political system—we don’t,” says Christopher M. Kerns, vice president and general counsel for Fort Myer.
At first glance, Pearson seemed an odd choice. At 40, he is a relatively young businessman, with a reputation for being at turns charming and abrasive.
But Kerns and his colleagues knew they had chosen the right person for the job. An African-American of medium height and stocky build, with a pie face, deep dimples, breathtaking light-brown eyes, and a Southern charm that often masks a ruthless aggressiveness, Pearson heads up several local ventures and is seen as concentrated political juice.
“He leaves his footprints wherever he has been. His is a small but effective outfit,” says Eugene DeWitt Kinlow, a former D.C. Council candidate and one of Pearson’s associates in Leadership Washington, a fraternity of specially selected business, civic, and government leaders.
When Pearson stepped into the Fort Myer case, the most he thought he could do was secure a delay in the debarment. But he did much more than that: He altered the entire debarment process, ensuring that no single person would ever be in the position to stick it to his client.
“In almost every other jurisdiction there is a panel, not just one man. I believe [Abadie] abused his precious authority,” says Pearson. Pearson took his procedural concerns to the minions of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who gave him the brush-off, a common response to lobbyists in this administration. “I consulted with the executive branch to try to fashion some compromise, and they were unable or unwilling to manage this problem,” he adds.
So Pearson went to the D.C. Council, a comfort zone of sorts. He knows the councilmembers, intimately. He has seen the insides of their homes, the insides of their wallets, and their outsize ambitions.
“When [he] brought information to us, I was left with a lot of questions. The thing had a bad smell and a bad taste,” says Council Chairman Linda Cropp.
Thanks to Pearson’s visits to council offices, emergency legislation appeared on the panel’s agenda in October 2003, courtesy of At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil. The bill advocated establishing a new process for determining how companies are debarred or suspended. And, although the road-paving company was not specifically named, the legislation might as well have been called the Fort Myer Construction Corp. Rescue Act. One section effectively killed all debarments or contracting suspensions promulgated between April 1 and the date of the bill. And companies that had been debarred during that time—such as Fort Myer—could resume business with the District while their cases were re-heard.
Fort Myer got what it wanted: The bill became law in February 2004, creating a new debarment panel to review the case. Mayor Williams could have vetoed the measure, but he let it become law without his signature. The panel ultimately ruled, in April 2004, that the debarment of Fort Myer was appropriate. But the punishment was only for six months, and it was applied retroactively, amounting to time served, according to documents provided by the Office of Contracting and Procurement. So Fort Myer didn’t go out of business; it went back to business.
During fiscal year 2003, the D.C. government paid the corporation $41 million, according to documents provided by the city’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer. In fiscal 2004, by Aug. 11, the road-paving corporation had received $19 million.
“We were very satisfied with the results of [Pearson’s] work,” says Kerns. The company’s satisfaction is measured by the compensation Pearson received: This year, between January and July 10, Fort Myer paid him $216,000 in consulting fees, according to documents filed with the Office of Campaign Finance.
“I don’t like to take people’s money unless I know the road map to victory,” says Pearson. “I don’t mind losing, as long as the playing field is fair, and we did the best we could do,” he continues. “I always try to position myself so that I don’t lose because of politics.”
For more than a decade, Pearson has been the go-to guy for most of the elected officials in the District—from Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. through Mayor Williams, and many of the players in between. In 1998, he served as co-chair of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ finance committee for his mayoral bid, raising nearly $1 million. Between 2000 and 2002, Pearson collected $300,000 for Mayor Williams’ re-election bid, and he donated $1,000 to Councilmember Phil Mendelson, $500 each to Councilmembers Kathy Patterson and Sharon Ambrose, and $1,000 to Councilmember Carol Schwartz. In June 2003, Pearson dropped $1,000 into At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil’s futile re-election campaign; this year, he held a fundraiser for Brazil. He has been a strong supporter of Ward 8’s Sandy Allen—which may be one reason her campaign was able this year to amass as much as $100,000, the most she has ever brought in. (The money was not enough to stop the return of Barry to the Democratic nomination for Allen’s seat, however.) The other councilmembers—David Catania, Vincent Orange, and Jim Graham—also have been beneficiaries of Pearson’s largess, as have school-board members Peggy Cooper Cafritz and William Lockridge.
“He has worked hard for entrenched incumbents,” says a political operative, who asked not to be identified.
But unlike other lobbyists or fundraisers, Pearson doesn’t just drop money. He ensures that his life and the lives of his recipients are entwined. He began courting Cropp when she was running for an at-large seat on the council in 1990. Every time Pearson saw her on the campaign trail, he chatted her up. He complimented her on her political abilities. He took her to breakfast or lunch. After she was elected, he became the chair of her campaign committee in the special election for council chairman. In 2002, he again served in that role. For those two political campaigns, Pearson pulled in a total of nearly a quarter of a million dollars for Cropp. Between campaigns, the two have shared telephone conversations and dinners, sometimes at her home. The lines between the professional and the personal eventually blurred.
“I’m always going to be grateful to Linda [Cropp] for recommending her jeweler to us,” says Pearson’s wife, Lauren Vaughan Pearson, who met her future husband at a fundraiser he was holding for Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous at Georgia Brown’s restaurant.
“I like Kerry very much. He’s one of those young black men who has done so much without anything. I’d like to take him under my wing,” says Cropp.
She isn’t alone. Evans and Pearson long ago progressed beyond a first-name basis, in a relationship that began when Evans was first elected to the council, in 1991. Since then, Pearson has been around for the birth of the councilmember’s children, the death of the councilmember’s mother (whose funeral in Pennsylvania he attended), and the death of the councilmember’s wife (whose funeral in Minnesota he attended).
“I count Kerry as one of my closest friends. We’ve seen each other go through stuff—ups and downs,” says Evans. “I think he’s terrific. He’s my guy and I’m his guy.”
In 2002, when Pearson and his wife got married in Scottsdale, Ariz.—home to Doctors Community Healthcare, which between January 2001 and December 2003 paid Pearson as much as $600,000 as its lobbyist—several councilmembers flew out for the ceremony. The media questioned them about who was footing the tab for their excursion. All of them had reached into their own pockets to cover the trip.
“Am I a well-connected lobbyist?” Pearson asks facetiously. “I can get my phone calls returned, as can almost everybody in this town who has some involvement.”
His involvement is extensive and varied. Here’s an inventory:
•He’s a member of the powerful Federal City Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that since 1954 has coordinated many of the District’s major development schemes, including the building of Metrorail and the MCI Center, and the refurbishing of Union Station.
•He’s a partner in Golding Holdings, a huge real-estate company based in Cape Town, South Africa. Pearson is engaged in several development projects with that firm.
•He is part of a team assembled by Parsons Management Consultants that is overseeing billions of dollars’ worth of renovations at Dulles and Reagan National Airports.
•He’s the chair of Kerry S. Pearson LLC, a holding company located in Dupont Circle that includes divisions focused on government, health care, and construction management and consulting. Its subsidiaries include KSP Healthcare Group, an operation that specializes in health-care-management consulting and acquisitions and mergers; and A-1 Construction and Consulting LLC, which specializes in real-estate-development services and construction management (Brett Greene is the chief operating officer of the company; Lauren Vaughan Pearson is the chief executive officer).
His core staff includes about 31 people. But that number increases as he adds on projects. Pearson won’t comment on the company’s revenues, but those familiar with his operation say that it is a multi-million-dollar enterprise.
Pearson’s pogo-stick tour from fundraising to lobbying to far-flung business ventures defies the paradigm molded by the District’s legendary influence-peddlers, most notably city-hall regulars David Wilmot and Fred Cooke. For the past two decades, Wilmot and Cooke have served as hired guns for vested interests in the city. They fought for riverboat gambling, against an environmentally friendly bottle-deposit bill, and for a variety of public figures in trouble with the law.
Pearson, by contrast, has chosen gigs that have generally kept him off the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section. He served as a lobbyist for Doctors Community Healthcare, which helped to rescue Greater Southeast Community Hospital in the mid-’90s, when it first faced bankruptcy and sale. He was involved with one of the companies that sought to redevelop the old Washington Convention Center site. He championed changes in legislation involving court-appointed child advocates. He represents a diverse collection of businesses including Clyde’s Restaurant Group; ACS State and Local Solutions, which handles red-light cameras; and ACS State Healthcare Inc. (Consultec), which received $22 million from the D.C. Department of Health to provide technology services for the agency while handling Medicaid and other insurance claims, according to documents provided by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
In addition to pulling strings in the District, Pearson has dropped cash into the campaigns of politicians in South Carolina, Prince George’s County, Md., and Baltimore, where Mayor Martin O’Malley issued an official resolution declaring Oct. 12, 2002, Lauren and Kerry Pearson Wedding Day. Pearson also raised money for the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Committee as far back as 1989; he estimates that he pulled in for both groups as much as $5 million, some of which went to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and was collected in conjunction with John Tyson, a member of Pearson’s staff. And Pearson has helped a host of charitable causes and nonprofit groups—the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, the Virginia-based Crisis Link, Metropolitan Baptist Church Day School, My Sister’s Place, and the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
Once, he and Tyson chased down a Turkish billionaire who was on vacation, hitting him up for $1 million to help finance the U.S. tour of “The Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul” exhibition, which was sponsored by the Palace Arts Foundation in conjunction with the Republic of Turkey and displayed locally at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Those familiar with Pearson’s fundraising history estimate that he has raised nearly $60 million for charitable and political purposes over the past 10 years. Pearson declines to comment about the cumulative total of his fundraising activities.
“What he has done as a lobbyist and philanthropist is create a direct intersection between money, business, and politics,” says A. Scott Bolden, an attorney with the Reed Smith firm and former president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
The road to political influence for Kerry Shawn Pearson has been rugged. When he started out, he had nothing to leverage: no inherited wealth, no well-positioned relative, and no friend of a friend who knew someone.
“He’s a self-made guy. Nobody handed him anything,” says Terry Peay, executive vice president with the Stephen A. Goldberg Co., a major real-estate and investment firm based in the District. He has known Pearson since the late ’80s.
“I don’t want to play ‘I was born by the river.’ But I was pretty close to it,” says Pearson, who now lives in a stone house in Washington’s Gold Coast with his wife and their two dogs, Blizzard, a Maltese, and Maximus, a Yorkshire terrier.
Pearson grew up in Fairfield County, S.C. His father, a master bricklayer, died in a car accident when Pearson was only 2 years old. His mother, who had only two years of college, was left with 12 children to care for. (She actually had given birth to 15; three died at young ages. Pearson is the 11th of the 12 survivors.) For a time, the family lived in a house without running water. Later, they moved into his grandmother’s shotgun shack, which had no indoor toilet.
“I was around 5 years old when [my mother] became a working mother. She worked as an LPN; she went back to school for a year or two to get some technical training,” Pearson narrates. His mother never went on welfare and “worked and saved” to buy a better house, where the family moved when he was 7. His mother still lives there.
“That was very instructive: to see my mother work and go back to school, to start all over. She basically was a junior when she dropped out. There she was taking advanced French—something she clearly didn’t practice in years—and to be able to pass it, and to be able to finish, that was very impressive,” adds Pearson.
“He and his mother are very close. There isn’t anything in the world he wouldn’t do for her,” says Lauren Vaughan Pearson, an information-technology expert who came to the District six years ago to work for a software company. Before they married, Kerry Pearson became a confidant she often consulted about career options. When she was preparing to leave the company she worked for, he persuaded her to join his team. Today, she is the president and chief operating officer of Kerry S. Pearson LLC. Pearson jokes that she “owns half of everything and all of me.”
After his mother, Muhammad Ali is the person Pearson most admires—and he is the person Pearson most resembles. When people first noted the resemblance, Pearson was a teenager, selling beer in Charleston, S.C.; he didn’t even know who the great fighter was. He learned quickly and felt honored by the comparison.
As a teen, Pearson wrote songs and played the saxophone well enough to get in the governor’s all-star band. Although he skipped the 10th grade, he never finished high school, choosing instead to earn a GED. He considered a career in medicine and then in real estate. But when he enrolled in the University of South Carolina in Columbia, he chose political science. He never earned his bachelor’s degree, however.
“I was a boy in a hurry,” he explains.
He was also bodacious. Take the stunt he pulled in the in 1988, when he decided he wanted to join former U.S. Rep.Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) presidential-campaign staff:
“I got fixated on Dick Gephardt as the next guy to be president,” says Pearson. “I read an article that his campaign manager was going to be Bill Carrick, who was also from South Carolina, and I decided that’s a sign.”
One of Pearson’s sisters lived in the District with her husband, an officer stationed at Bolling Air Force Base. Pearson, then still in college, figured he’d move to the nation’s capital, stay with his sister and brother-in-law, transfer to American University, and get things going with Carrick. Once he arrived, he went to meet the man, who was then a top aide to Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. But Pearson didn’t have an appointment.
“I waited out in the lobby for what seemed like eight hours,” he says. “[Carrick] came out and was curious: Who was this Kerry Pearson?
“I told him I wanted to work in Gephardt’s campaign and read that he was going to be the campaign manager. What should I do next?” adds Pearson.
That wasn’t the first time he’d presented himself, unannounced, at a politician’s office. Back in South Carolina, Pearson had done the same thing when he was 16 and became interested in State Rep. E. Crosby Lewis.
“He just showed up and told me he wanted to work for me,” recalls the former five-term legislator. “I didn’t know him before he came to work for me. I knew some of his family. But I know he came without a referral.”
Pearson was struck by Lewis’ success in pushing through a major education initiative championed by then-Gov. Richard Riley. Pearson knew his neighbors in dirt-poor Fairfield County stood to gain greatly from its passage.
“As a young man, I couldn’t believe he was that smooth. It’s like he has a plan and he is just working on that plan,” says Lewis from his law office in Columbia.
“I don’t know how Beethoven wrote the beautiful music he did. Or how Picasso could paint the way he did,” he continues. “[And] I don’t know why God gave Kerry Pearson the ability to know what to say at the right moment and to know what action to take.
“He’s very unusual, “ Lewis adds.
With Gephardt’s campaign, however, Pearson got the don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you treatment from Carrick. That didn’t stop the young South Carolinian. He simply showed up at the campaign headquarters and started volunteering. Eventually, he was placed on the payroll, making about $600 a month.
Then, Donna Brazile, who was working for Gephardt as she climbed her way up to top-national-black-female-Democratic-political-operative status, tapped Pearson, along with a few others, to head out to Iowa in preparation for the Democratic caucuses, the first national test of their candidate. When they got there, they learned that the operation was in near-shambles. Pearson was asked to help organize. He quit college and worked full-time on Gephardt’s Iowa turnaround team, helping to ensure the candidate’s win in the caucuses.
Gephardt’s victory was short-lived; the candidate gave way to eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Pearson subsequently worked for the Democratic National Committee, then with the Democratic Congressional Committee, which Gephardt led, and then for then–Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. But before long, he was looking for a job.
“I came to Washington to work for Dick Gephardt; to go to the White House, to be some important person in the White House—not just hold somebody’s jacket,” he says. “That was completely unrealistic. One: I was very young; I was 21 years old. And two: I had not been to school.”
Without a national horse to ride, all politics suddenly became local for Pearson. He learned that David Clarke, former Ward 1 councilmember, needed a campaign manager for his 1990 mayoral bid. He applied and, after a series of meetings, got the job. Clarke’s bid was a long shot: He was white, he championed some issues that were remote and often extremely liberal, and he faced several popular African-American leaders, including Sharon Pratt Dixon (later Kelly), Councilmembers John Ray and Charlene Drew Jarvis, and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy. The most Pearson knew he could hope for was that his candidate would make a decent showing. When the numbers were counted, Clarke was second to last. He beat only civil-rights icon and former D.C. Congressional Delegate Fauntroy.
Clarke’s failed campaign ended in debt. He blamed Pearson, who is quick to note that he “had no check-signing authority.” Pearson says Clarke had an “overwhelming concern about owing people. It was a mark of his integrity.” Actually, Clarke was a cheapskate. But Pearson decided to help retire the debt anyhow. The rest, as they say, is history.
“You know what they say about history?” asks Pearson. “It’s one damn thing after another. “
In his travails for Clarke, Pearson had made important connections that would prove quite useful in his future: He had met up-and-coming politicos Cropp and Evans.
“When I first met Kerry, he was thoroughly abrasive and a complete turn-off,” recalls Evans, adding that he was supporting his law partner John Ray. Pearson approached him one day when he was going into the men’s room. The tone of his pitch, recalls Evans, was “kind of threatening.”
Nonetheless, Pearson was able to use the Clarke campaign to springboard onto Evans’ 1991 campaign to land the council seat that John Wilson vacated after winning the race for council chair.
“The campaign was looking for people to help,” Evans says. “Mary Eva Candon says, ‘I know this guy. He’s not doing anything. He can help out.’ And who is it? It’s Kerry Pearson.
“I say, ‘I don’t like him.’ But Mary Eva brings him on anyway,” adds Evans.
The discord over the campaign’s newest worker continued. “After a couple of weeks, [Pearson] came to me wanting his check. Well, I hadn’t hired him, and I didn’t know anything about any check,” says Linda Greenan, a Georgetown University government-relations executive who was then working for Evans.
“That’s when we had our first major blowup,” continues Greenan. “[Pearson] was talking about how I’m a white woman, he’s a black man, and I’m trying to keep him down. The next day, there was this personal apology on this gold-trimmed card that read ‘From Kerry S. Pearson.’ He had this anger-management issue. I bet there are a lot of people out there who have notes on ‘Kerry Shawn Pearson’ personalized notepads,” laughs Greenan, who says Pearson sometimes still “opens his mouth without thinking.”
The written apology from Pearson cleared the air. “I picked up the phone and called him. Once we established our relationship, things really got better,” says Greenan. The turning point for their friendship, Greenan says, came when Pearson volunteered to cover a meet-and-greet event for Evans when she was in Florida for her mother’s funeral.
Pearson’s rough edge may explain why he was given what arguably was the worst job in Evans’ campaign: food service. But he shocked everyone with how he handled the task.
“There were 13 candidates in that race and tons of poll workers,” says Evans. “Kerry comes out with breakfast for our poll workers, and nobody else has breakfast for anybody, so he feeds everybody. He comes out with lunch, and nobody has lunch for anybody except us, so he feeds everybody at all the polls [in Ward 2].
“And I always say that by dinnertime everybody is handing out my literature,” adds Evans. “The fact is we only won by  votes….That might have been the difference. I don’t know. All I know is that Kerry did a superb job.”
After that election, Evans’ political operation was in debt. Now over his initial dislike of Pearson and knowing what the operative had done for Clarke, he tapped Pearson for the job. Pearson wanted to take 15 percent for his efforts. Evans agreed.
It is difficult to track how much Pearson actually raised for Evans. The money from his events is not listed on campaign-finance reports as a single category. Rather, each donor’s name appears beside the amount contributed. Further, Pearson is listed as a consultant in earlier reports without any recognition of the task he performed. But people familiar with Pearson’s work in those days testify to his Midas touch.
“I thought he had real talent. He was fearless asking people for money,” says Greenan, noting that Pearson had a penchant to push a bit too hard, however. “There were numerous times Jack or I would have to say, ‘You can’t act like that anymore.’”
Sometimes Greenan caught the collateral damage from Pearson’s money-soliciting blitzes. “There were a couple of times people would call and say, ‘Who is that guy? Don’t have him call here again,’” Greenan continues. “But he learned from his mistakes. He might make the same mistake twice, but there wouldn’t be a third time.”
Pearson also owes his success to the demographics of Evans’ turf. Ward 2 is a fundraiser’s paradise. Encompassing downtown, Foggy Bottom, Southwest, and Georgetown, it has more business leaders, developers, and generally moneyed elites per block than any other part of the city. Pearson schmoozed with these big shots with the full blessing of the ward’s new representative, in a recipe guaranteed to open wallets. He naturally began to amass an impressive list of people with both influence and affluence. He himself became a highly sought-after commodity.
Clarke, who had been pissing mad with Pearson over the debt his mayoral campaign had run up, nevertheless turned to Pearson to pump up his coffers when he ran for council chairman in 1993, after Wilson committed suicide. Ever the skinflint, however, Clarke didn’t want to accept Pearson’s fee, according to Evans.
“[Clarke] calls me up,” recalls an amused Evans. “[He] says Kerry wants a share of the take. ‘How much are you giving him? He’s telling me he’s getting 15 percent. Are you really paying him that much?’ Dave wanted to pay him 11 percent.”
Pearson says the money he collected for Clarke that time was as a businessman—not in the role of professional fundraiser. Thus, he didn’t charge the fee. In fact, he says, in many instances he never charged a fee, seeing benefits beyond dollars and cents.
After Clarke, Cropp came knocking at Pearson’s door. He raised money for Ray and Barry—after Barry was re-elected mayor, for his constituent-services fund, says Pearson.
Over the past decade, there has been no one like Pearson to come along on the local political fundraising scene who has been as successful, ubiquitous, and facile. And yet he asserts that collecting money was “never part of my core business.”
“I always thought it was not something I wanted to be doing forever,” he continues. “It has been such a part of my imprint in people’s mind that they assumed it was my business.”
“There was a time when I’d call Kerry and say, ‘The constituent-services fund is low,’” says Evans. “He would say, ‘Fine. Pick a place.’ And he’d send out faxes and we’d have our 40 grand…just like that.”
Throughout the early period, Pearson sealed his relationship with Evans by always calling the councilmember and getting his opinion before accepting any fundraising gig for would-be or incumbent politicians. That helped to elevate Evans’ clout.
“As [Pearson] branched out, he became very smart and very savvy,” says Greenan.
The transformation has indeed been remarkable, says one District government manager, who has interacted with Pearson often: “I remember the guy when he first came to town. I said, ‘That ’bama is not going to make it here.’ He was wearing plaid shirts and tight pants.
“Look at him now,” adds the manager.
It was never about the politicians—or even the money. The fundraisers were simply a means to an end. They were to get the right people in the room so Pearson could work his thing.
Before he started raising money for politicians, Pearson was simply another operative and wannabe businessman. It was highly unlikely that he could simply pick up the telephone and call the president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, or get the attention of Kenneth Sparks, former executive director of the powerful Federal City Council. He certainly couldn’t break bread with top-shelf developers.
But today, as the fundraiser extraordinaire who serves as the finance chair of the campaign committee for the chair of the D.C. Council, for example, he can.
When Pearson was raising money for Evans, he met such prominent developers as Peay and Stephen A. Goldberg, who a few years ago gave $25 million to Children’s Hospital. Years later, Pearson teamed up with the Goldberg Co. in a development proposal to manage the new Washington Convention Center.
“Kerry, to his credit, recognized the money was not in the fundraising,” says Evans. “The money was in teaming up with people. Goldberg would have been the first. I know he’s done it with others.”
In street vernacular, some characterize Pearson as a “snatch-and-grab” man. Once in the room, he is a stealth operator, quickly scooping secrets of the trade and other valuable tidbits, storing them in his breast pocket for later personal use. If he were on Wall Street, he might be charged with insider trading. What he has collected from his fundraising gatherings and attendant relationships has been used to fashion his various real-estate and health-care ventures.
Although he lost millions of dollars when Doctors Community Healthcare filed for bankruptcy protection last year, he still came out on top. First, he acted like “the Donald.” The company revised its strategic plan and, working with its bankers, spent its way through the problem, adding new staff while expanding and diversifying its services.
“We either had to make it work or run—and we weren’t running,” says Lauren Vaughan Pearson.
Then, taking what he had learned from Doctors and his relationship with its owner, Paul Tuft, Kerry Pearson created KSP Healthcare Group.
“The head of [KSP Healthcare Group], Colene Daniel, recently was picked to be chief executive officer of Maryland General in Baltimore, making her one of the first African-Americans to hold the position in the region and one of the few black women nationwide,” boasts Pearson.
His longstanding relationships with Peay, the Goldberg Co., and Fort Myer, along with insights garnered from his brothers, who have a construction business in South Carolina, helped Pearson create his A-1 Construction and Consulting LLC. And then there’s that contract from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to do $3 billion of improvements at Dulles and Reagan National Airports.
Tara Hamilton, the spokesperson for the authority, confirms that Parsons Management Consultants is the prime consultant on the project, with a five-year contract. She says that Parsons oversees all of the construction work at both airports and is expected to be paid $40 million this year alone. Pearson declines, however, to discuss any of his business deals, including confirming or denying the accuracy of the information supplied by others, including Hamilton.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” he explains. “I’ve been blessed with the level of access I have had to people who were willing to let me be in the room. For years, I sat in there silently, taking notes.
“Oftentimes, if I did something, say, for a real-estate developer, I would establish a relationship with them. Then, I would bring them other opportunities where I would really be more of a partner,” continues Pearson. “Along the way, you learn nuggets of information, and you wake up and say, ‘I know this.’”
He recently was a member of a Related Cos. team—one of four to bid on developing the old Washington Convention Center site. Related wasn’t chosen, controversy erupted around the selection process, and it sued. The city settled for $5 million.
Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price says, “Kerry’s role on that [Related] team was absolutely of no weight….He’s not a developer, he’s not an architect, and he’s not a builder. His being part of that team carried no weight positively or negatively.”
Maybe. When the mayor was pushing his legislation to create an independent corporation to manage development of the Anacostia waterfront, Pearson lobbied the council to alter the bill, including adding a clause that would have prohibited any former city employee from being hired by the new corporation until that person had been out of District government service for two years. That measure was jokingly dubbed the Andrew Altman and Eric Price Amendment—officials who were rumored to have interest in leaving their jobs with the Williams administration.
Insiders viewed the amendment as payback for the role Altman—the city’s planning director—and Price had played in blocking Related’s proposal. Although that amendment failed, others didn’t, including one that strengthened a requirement for minority participation in contracts with developers and other businesses. Yet another forced the independent corporation, the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., to buy at market or “reasonable” rates land from the National Capital Revitalization Corp. (NCRC)—an impediment to Williams’ plan for the riverfront. There had been a great deal of controversy over whether the NCRC or the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. should handle the waterfront redevelopment, because the NCRC already owned property in the designated target area. The mayor got his way, but the law required the NCRC to be made whole.
“I don’t know [that] Kerry was trying to push any one thing. He saw some problems. I think he was right,” says Cropp, adding that the legislation as the mayor had sent it down to the council was “essentially a giveaway.”
Evans sees criticism of Pearson this way: “He is a success. He worked hard to get there. He hasn’t done anything anybody else in the city who is a success hasn’t done. But he is an African-American, and that’s unique. You find people who are jealous, who may take shots.”
Seated in the conference room of his office, with an impressive view of the Dupont Circle area, Pearson holds forth on the transition he’s made. He says he’s downsized his political fundraising; most of the money he collects now is for charitable causes. Further, he doesn’t see himself as a lobbyist and is taking on fewer and fewer clients. He’s out to build a business empire. Kerry S. Pearson LLC has offices in Baltimore, Prince George’s County, Columbia, S.C., and Cape Town, South Africa. From time to time, it sets up shop in other cities as it secures projects.
“I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be in business. I always felt political skills were very easily transferable to business,” he continues. He speaks in New Age terms, mentioning the book Yes or No: The Guide to Better Decisions, by Spencer Johnson, as a sort of business Bible—a must-read for every new staff member. He reads it three or four times a year.
“I do not concede strategy to anyone. It’s the only thing that I sort of hold on to. In terms of how a project is analyzed, how it’s structured, the timetable,” Pearson says. “After everybody is comfortable and understands, then I can let it go and let someone else deal with the day-to-day stuff.”
It is this kind of attention to detail and planning that has helped him grow from small-time political operative to somebody—even if he isn’t in the White House.
“I came almost like an immigrant,” he continues. “Nobody gave me anything. People may say I have undue influence. I didn’t inherit undue influence, and I don’t believe I have undue influence. But for those who say that, they need to get up in the morning and get involved and mitigate my undue influence if that’s what they believe.”
That may have happened during the September primary election, when all of the contested D.C. Council incumbents, all supported by Pearson, were booted out of office by challengers who were not nearly as well-financed. Everyone is assessing the message sent by voters about the public-policy agenda of the Williams administration and the council, but there may have been a message to people like Pearson, as well: Money doesn’t always talk loudest.
Still, when young wannabe political fundraisers look to measure their skill and talent, the person they are likely to consider as the standard is Kerry Shawn Pearson. Whether he likes it or not, when his name is mentioned, people don’t think of health care, or construction, or even government consulting. They think of money.
If he won’t acknowledge it, his wife does. “The buzz that I still hear is about Kerry’s fundraising activity,” says Lauren Vaughan Pearson. “I wish people would dig a little deeper.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.