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When all of D.C. politics was focused earlier this year on profligate spending on fancy SUVs for District lawmakers, few seemed to care that City Administrator Allen Lew was cruising around in a shiny new 2011 Chevy Tahoe. And when a city report found a few months later that Lew had given his chief of staff nearly $60,000 in bonuses over the last two years while the city dealt with budget shortfalls, no one noticed.

Lew’s ability to avoid negative attention is based largely on the vast reservoir of goodwill he’s built as the guy who gets massive city construction projects done. Since coming to the District in the mid-’90s to build the convention center, Lew has cranked out a baseball stadium and overseen a $3.5 billion school improvement campaign—transforming once-embarrassingly run down institutions into modern facilities that routinely make public officials swoon.

Lew’s list of successes is why he’s one of the few holdovers from the last administration employed by Mayor Vince Gray. Gray not only kept Lew on, but gave him the keys to the city. And Lew’s been put in charge of developing the new Department of General Services, a multi-billion dollar über-agency that will be responsible for just about all the city’s building projects.

For the most part, Lew has enjoyed a hands-off approach from the elected powers-that-be. One councilmember, who wanted anonymity to speak more freely about a powerful guy with almost no visible enemies, says the feeling around the Wilson Building has long been that Lew’s results have earned him some measure of freedom from council scrutiny.

“God help us if we have to look behind the curtain,” the councilmember says.

But maybe they ought to take a peek once in a while. Reports by two watchdog agencies this year show that Lew appeared to give an unfair advantage to a private contractor and longtime member of his inner circle. And emails recently obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request show he might just have a little too cozy relationship with another private contractor, who works for a firm that regularly competes for city contracts.

The disclosures highlight potential conflicts of interest that arise out of Lew’s decision to bring private contractors into his inner circle. These aren’t high crimes, but they are evidence that even Lew has some blind spots. And it might behoove the council to occasionally peek over the shoulder of one of the most powerful men in city government.

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When he was tapped by former Mayor Adrian Fenty to rebuild the city’s crumbling public schools at the newly formed Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, Lew says, he got a visit from the mayor’s close confidant, Sinclair Skinner.

The ex-mayor’s now-famous fraternity brother, according to Lew, said many of Fenty’s friends were worried they’d be excluded from the school projects because Lew plays favorites. Fenty’s response, according to Lew: “I know Allen can get it done. And as far as I’m concerned he can bring the circus.”

Being accused of playing favorites is an occupational hazard for someone who routinely has to reject would-be contractors. But reports released this year by the D.C. Auditor and Office of Inspector General show that Lew does appear to have favored one close associate.

In 2007, Lew tapped the K Street law firm Leftwich & Ludaway to help with procurement. Emails obtained by City Paper show that Thomas Bridenbaugh, an attorney at the firm who worked with Lew on the convention center and ballpark, would pick contractors for Lew to sign off on them.

The work has not come cheap. The city has paid L & L, whose partner Natalie Ludaway was part of Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown’s transition team, more than $4.5 million in the last four years, city records show. The OIG report noted that Bridenbaugh says he spends about 60 percent of his time on OPEFM issues, while other associates spend 10 percent or less of their time on the city contract. (Bridenbaugh did not return calls seeking comment.) A spokesman for Lew said there are approximately three other attorneys at L & L working on OPEFM issues.

The OIG report also found several problems with Lew’s initial decision to pick L & L. First, Lew chose the firm without soliciting two other bids, which the OIG says was a violation of city contracting rules. Lew’s team told the OIG it wasn’t aware of the rule, leading the OIG to wonder if the city received “the best value” for its money.

The OIG also faulted Lew for allowing L & L to operate at times on an expired contract or with no contract at all. Lew told the OIG that he picked L & L because he needed someone immediately and he’d worked with them in the past. “This does not justify violating provisions in the D.C. Code,” the OIG wrote.

Both the OIG and the D.C. Auditor dinged Lew for not doing more to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest regarding Bridenbaugh, whose father-in-law is a manager at Turner Construction Company. The behemoth New York-based construction company has done much of the construction work for Lew on schools, the ballpark, and the convention center. Lew established a “firewall” between Bridenbaugh and contracts involving Turner, according to a report by the OIG. But the OIG said Bridenbaugh ought to be removed from his position to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Lew not only ignored the OIG’s suggestion; he’s since expanded Bridenbaugh’s role to help shape what the Department of General Services will look like.

When the city’s procurement boss, James Staton, went to Lew for help with reducing the time it takes to solicit and award bids, Lew says he told Staton: “I’ll do better than that. I’ll introduce you to Tom,” and arranged a meeting with Bridenbaugh.

In response to LL’s FOIA request, the Gray administration withheld many of the emails between Lew and Bridenbaugh, but officials did provide a log showing their subject matter. The log shows Bridenbaugh was included in Lew’s recent discussions about personnel matters, an issue with the United Medical Center’s board, and overall “government structure.”

Also included in those conversations was Philip Artin, a senior vice president at McKissack & McKissack who, like Bridenbaugh, also goes back with Lew to the convention center days. Emails between Artin and Lew show the pair have a friendly relationship, with Lew asking Artin advice on which Broadway shows to see and giving Artin an update on his occasional bursts of exercise. The two use nicknames for each other; Lew is “CA” for city administrator, Artin is “CP,” which Lew declined to explain what it stands for. Artin declined to comment.

Lew warns against reading anything into “chit-chat bullshit emails” and says it would be “beyond unfair” to infer that Artin (or Bridenbaugh) have benefited in any improper way because of his close relationship with them. But there are hints that Artin’s relationship with Lew has been good for Artin’s business.

OPEFM selected McKissack and another partner to be project managers for school projects in 2007. According to a memo written afterwards by Lew, the partnership got the initial bid despite having the highest offer—17 percent higher than the runner-up. What helped set McKissack’s bid apart, Lew wrote, was their “unequalled local knowledge.” The $3.5 million award for fiscal year 2008 has ballooned into more than $31 million in payments by OPEFM in the last four years, city records show.

McKissack has also worked with a variety of city agencies (all of which are now under Lew’s control) ranging from the Department of Health to the fire department. In 2011, the firm has been paid nearly $60,000 by the city administrator’s office and more than $3 million by other agencies.

* * *

With Lew in charge of more and more work, McKissack, as well as L & L, stand to increase their influence in city government in the next few years. Lew describes both Artin and Bridenbaugh as being graced with the “true genius” he’ll need to help restructure the way the entire city government does business as a leaner more efficient enterprise.

But Lew seems alternately blasé and naïve about potential problems associated with investing so much trust in private contractors outside the city payroll. Is he worried about his friends using their insider status to better position their companies for future District business? No, he says: Most of the city’s construction money is already tied up in schools, and there’s “no guarantee” he and his team will be around when more money becomes available down the road.

“The only way these people can perform for me is if I’m able to trust them and I’m able to utilize them as if they were the same—as on staff or as consultants,” says Lew. “And I’ve treated them as one family as a result of that.”

And he says he’s called both men to the carpet when they’ve displeased him, and he would have no qualms about firing them if they didn’t meet his standards.

“It’s still a performance relationship,” says Lew. “They still have to deliver.”

Lew might not see a difference between his privately employed inner circle and those on the city payroll—“basically the way I see it, they’re being paid by the same source,” he says. But there is a difference, nonetheless. Those privately employed confidants are ultimately responsible to their employers, not Lew, no matter how much he believes otherwise. And that means their jobs are to make money—in this case, on the public dime.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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