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Early in former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s tenure as mayor, two of his top aides met with representatives of a construction company that had donated and raised funds for Fenty’s campaign.
The company was Peake Construction, and its owner, Nathan Peake, wasn’t happy.
“We’re supposed to get a piece of the fucking pie, no matter what,” said Peake, according to an under-oath statement given by Fenty’s former deputy chief of staff, Neil Richardson.
Whether that outburst had its desired effect isn’t clear. Richardson, who would leave city government on very bad terms with Fenty, recalled that Fenty didn’t like Peake, rolling his eyes when Peake’s name was mentioned.
Peake and his partner Parney Jenkins, the former head of the District Department of Transportation’s road construction division, did get a piece of the construction pie when their company teamed up as a certified disadvantaged business partner with the District’s biggest road construction company, Fort Myer Construction. A nearly 40-year-old company that last fiscal year was paid $78.8 million by the District, Fort Myer has quietly become a major player in D.C.’s construction business and has an influence in local politics to match.
There was only one problem with the partnership between Fort Myer and Peake Construction, according to a DDOT official who went out to monitor Peake’s work on Foxhall Road NW in 2007: They weren’t doing the work. Instead, Peake Construction had subcontracted its work out to another firm, which used its own workers and equipment for the project.
The DDOT official and an inhouse DDOT attorney recommended suspending future contract awards to Fort Myer until they cleared things up with Peake, a recommendation that wasn’t followed, according to two internal DDOT documents. Fort Myer told DDOT it was unaware of Peake’s arrangement, but the DDOT official would later say under oath in a deposition that “it was hard for me to believe that the prime contractor didn’t know what was going on in a project site.”
DDOT’s problems with Fort Myer and Peake Construction are at the heart of a wrongful termination case that’s been winding its way through federal court for the last three years. Former DDOT Chief of Staff Stephen Amos says he was fired after telling the Office of Inspector General that Fort Myer was allegedly “knowingly and fraudulently” using Peake as a “shell company” to qualify for federally funded road contracts. The District says Amos, who now works and lives in California, was fired for a variety of unflattering reasons that have nothing to do with his alleged whistleblower actions.
Chris Kerns, Fort Myer’s attorney and spokesman, declined to discuss the merits of Amos’ case publicly, except to say that Fort Myer relied on the District’s certification that Peake was a valid minority-owned firm before deciding to partner with the company. It’s not clear if Peake still operates (it was sued by a condo association in 2010 for allegedly installing leaky flower beds and never responded to the lawsuit), and its phone number has been disconnected.
This isn’t the first time Fort Myer has been part of a controversy in the District. The company has rebounded remarkably well from a very embarrassing blow a few years ago. That’s probably due to Fort Myer being well-run, but if LL were the cynical sort, he might wonder if that quick recovery had more to do with Fort Myer’s political connections.
The construction behemoth currently has between 700 and 1,000 employees. It has contracts with the District, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government. It owns the only two asphalt plants in town. And in the last four years, the District has paid Fort Myer $275 million.
Flash back to 2003, when news reports say the company was on the verge of going out of business. That same year, Fort Myer officials signed a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and paid $900,000 in fines after it admitted that some of its employees had bribed District employees and overbillled the city during a three-year span in the ’90s. The city’s procurement boss decided to block Fort Myer from receiving any city contracts for three years, but the punishment was ultimately lessened to about a year after Fort Myer successfully lobbied the D.C. Council to step in and undercut the procurement official’s power to punish companies, according to news reports.
Fort Myer officials, who said the punishment was too harsh because it had fired the employees responsible and taken steps to prevent further misdeeds, paid lobbyist Kerry Pearson $230,000 as part of their efforts, Office of Campaign Finance records show. “Close doesn’t even begin to describe the nature and extent of” the relationship between the council and Fort Myer, the Washington Post editorial board opined.
Indeed, the company’s top officials have been consistent and generous donors to the city’s politicians. Fort Myer, along with the families of president Jose Rodrigues and executive vice president Lewis Shrensky, has donated nearly $150,000 to political campaigns, PACs and constituent service funds in the last decade. A Post analysis in 1998 showed that Rodrigues and Shrensky were among the biggest financial backers of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ losing mayoral bid, bundling together a combined $17,000.
Kerns declined to comment on Fort Myer’s and its officials’ political donations or larger role in District politics. But LL ought to point out that it would be odd for such a recipient of large city contracts not to open its wallet when politicians come calling.
Evans, who notes he raised $1 million for that mayor’s race, says the extent of his relationship with Fort Myer is limited to the occasional phone call from Rodrigues when “he feels like the city isn’t paying him in an appropriate fashion.” Evans says he puts Rodrigues in touch with someone at the Chief Financial Officer’s office, “and that’s the last I’ll hear of it.”
Court records, though, contain allegations that the company’s influence often goes deeper than a phone call to the Wilson Building. In written testimony under oath for the Amos case, Richardson said that during a meeting between Fort Myer officials and Fenty, the company’s representatives were “upset or concerned about getting their fair share of the city’s contracts.” Richardson says Fenty dispatched him to “attempt to resolve Fort Myer’s issues” and follow up with the firm later.
The company’s outsized imprint in District work has sometimes made DDOT officials leery and competitors upset. Former City Administrator Dan Tangherlini once allegedly said in a meeting that when he ran DDOT, one of his goals was to find a sliver of the District some other company could pave, according to a former Wilson Building staffer. And one construction company, Cheeks of North America, recently sued Fort Myer alleging the company was part of a vast bid-rigging scheme involving a complicit District government. A federal judge mocked the lawsuit and tossed it before it went anywhere. But the fact that Capitol Paving, another major road construction company in the District, is owned by Rodrigues’ brother, Francisco Neto, and Anchor Construction, also in the road construction business, is owned by Rodrigues’ ex-son-in-law, is great fodder for the conspiracy types. The District has paid those two companies $110 million in the last four years, records from the CFO show.
Those conspiracy types may have more to munch on when Amos’s trial begins this November. Amos suggests in court filings that several higher ups in the Fenty administration were part of a conspiracy to shield Fort Myer from scrutiny. LL hasn’t seen any proof of that, but at the very least the case could help give a clearer picture of the links between power, politics and paving in this town.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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