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One is a high-ranking executive with a French transportation company that failed to win a District contract but may be hungry for redemption. The other is a developer promoting a giant big-box complex in a sparsely populated outskirt of the city. Both senior members of the Marion Barry administration, they teamed up to advise Mayor Vince Gray before he took office, co-chairing his transition committee on transportation.
What else they have in common: They’ve both given city officials heartburn recently over allegations they used those perches to help along their day jobs.
Last November, three weeks after he’d been named a co-chairman of Gray’s transition committee on transportation, Cell Bernardino fired off an e-mail to then-City Administrator Neil Albert, wanting to know what the “hold up” was on an environmental impact screening form for the Fort Lincoln development plan in Ward 5. That would be a necessary permit for the big-box shopping center Bernardino wants to go forward.
“As I’ve mentioned, we have been waiting a long time for [the District Department of Transportation] and [the District Department of the Environment] to provide comments on the retail center [environmental impact statement]. If there are questions/issues I’d like to know so I can respond,” Bernardino wrote from his BlackBerry, in one of several e-mails obtained by Washington City Paper. “If not, what’s the holdup?”
When contacted by LL, he said there was no conflict of interest in his e-mail to Albert “whatsoever.”
“It is my right (and my paying job) to ask what is taking so long with this District process,” Bernardino says via e-mail. He adds that he’d been corresponding with Albert for several years about the Fort Lincoln project—long before he took a spot on the transition committee. Albert couldn’t be reached for comment.
When LL points out to Bernardino that DDOT is one of the agencies he was supposed to be assessing for Gray, Bernardino says he was asking Albert, “who was in a position to buffer [DDOT] from inappropriate influence,” only for information, not for assistance.
Maybe, but it at least looks like Bernardino may have used his perch as transition chair for leverage that other developers wouldn’t have. Bernardino’s claims are also undercut by the fact that former DDOT Director Gabe Klein says Bernardino started pressing him to speed up the environmental impact statement—after joining the transition. “It was awkward, because he wanted me to push on people in the agency,” Klein says. Bernadino says that’s not the case, and he’s puzzled by Klein’s allegations.
Bernardino’s co-chairman, Tom Downs, had a similarly nice vantage point when he started asking officials at DDOT for specifics about the city’s contracts related to his business interests—specifically the District’s Circulator bus program, which Downs’ company, Veolia Transportation, tried to win the contract for in 2009.
“I need all of the financial data on the Circulator bus operation,” Downs wrote Klein last November. “I would like to see capital outlays, by [fiscal year] and source. I would like to see the operating subsidy budget, by year and source. I would like to see ridership for the system and by route, by FY.” A few days later, Downs asked again. “Gabe, I asked the WMATA CFO for the break out of the Circulator expenditures, both capital and operating. I also asked for the same numbers for the street cars. It would be helpful if you sent the same data from your perspective. I am also interested in the Circulator operating contract. Could you provide a copy?”
In an interview, Klein says Downs, who is currently the chairman of Veolia’s North American board, also made several verbal requests for as much information as possible related to Circulator contracts.
Veolia failed to win the Circulator contract when bids were solicited two years ago, city officials say. The current contract will expire in 2013, and officials expect Veolia to make another effort when bidding starts sometime next year.
Klein says Downs’ requests made him and other DDOT officials uncomfortable, and he asked the lawyer for the city’s attorney general assigned to DDOT to intervene. “I knew something wasn’t right,” Klein says.
In an interview, Downs says he was never told by anyone in the Gray transition or DDOT that his requests were making people feel uncomfortable. “Not a single person said a single word about that to me,” says Downs. A spokeswoman for Gray did not respond to questions from LL.
Downs says he was asking for specifics on the Circulator contracts because he was investigating concerns from the D.C. Council that there was a lack of transparency about DDOT’s capital budget. Downs says DDOT has been using a “kind of shell game” to manipulate its numbers.
“I was actually offended by the lack of transparency,” says Downs. “This democracy, at least the one I was used to dealing with, had a firm belief in transparency and accountability.”
He stresses that his requests had nothing to do with helping Veolia, who he says had never shown any interest in bidding on the Circulator contracts.
But records easily available on Metro’s website show Veolia’s clear interest in bidding on the Circulator contract, dating to several months after Downs joined the company in 2009. When LL points this out to Downs, he insists he had no knowledge of any past Circulator-related bids from his company. (Metro does the actual contracting and procurement for the Circulator.)
“Veolia has no interest in a management contract for DDOT and never will,” added Downs, who Gray also tapped to serve on Metro’s board of directors. “[DDOT] is too in the dark to be accountable.”
A transition report produced by Downs and Bernadino and released earlier this month is also similarly blunt, accusing DDOT of being an opaque, out-of-control agency that regularly breaks city laws and has wasted money on streetcars that don’t comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. (A DDOT spokesman says they do, and similar streetcars elsewhere in the country don’t seem to have had a problem transporting the disabled.) Word from the Wilson Building is that the report was read with bemused smiles and promptly forgotten.
Still, Downs and Bernadino defend the report, saying it accurately depicts a troubled agency in need of reform. The normally sanguine Klein, meanwhile, seems almost beside himself at what he perceives as slander against a model agency coming from two Barry-era bureaucrats who presided over a city when its transportation network was in disarray. (Bernardino was the embattled head of the Department of Public Works under Barry, a department an old Washington Post editorial called “the bane of taxpayers and elected officials alike.” Downs was the city administrator.)
“What right do these guys have to judge anything that we’ve done?” says Klein. “It’s not really about accountability; it’s about power and control, egos and ultimately money. And it’s just sad that we’re going back to that.”
NAVIGATORGATE: THE BEGINNINGS
Kwame Brown wanted an SUV that looked just like the mayor’s.
That’s what a Wilson Building source told LL in casual conversation a month ago, a juicy little nugget that gave birth to the epic public relations disaster the D.C. Council chairman now finds himself in.
It was a slow news day, so LL went right outside. Lo and behold, there they were, two almost-identical luxury Lincoln Navigators, gleaming in the winter sun. Soon LL reported that Brown’s taxpayer-funded Lincoln Navigator, as well as the mayor’s, cost nearly $2,000 a month. But Brown’s office denied that he’d specifically requested a ride to match the mayor’s. He had just wanted a regular black-on-black SUV.
So was it just a happy coincidence that he wound up getting an SUV that looks just like the mayor’s? (Brown’s Navigator is actually a 2011 model, while Gray’s is a 2010.)
You already know the answer, thanks to Sunday’s Washington Post report detailing the two luxury Lincoln Navigators the city leased for Brown—one of which the chairman rejected because of its interior color scheme.
“We requested from [the] Department of Public Works a black Navigator, black-on-black, interior, GPS, power moon [roof], rear entertainment system and aluminum wheels,” Brown’s aide, Nyasha Smith, wrote in one of many e-mails obtained by the Post that paint a picture of Brown as a vain, status-obsessed politician.
Though certainly the biggest and most noticeable, the SUVs aren’t the only clues that Brown is too obsessed with the trappings of public office, at a time when the city simply cannot afford it. How else to explain the fact that he’s considered ordering a redesign of the ID cards worn by council staff so that they featured his signature? When Gray was chairman, the ID cards somehow survived without such details. Brown’s spokeswoman told LL last month that new cards were being considered because other agency heads, like Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier, have their signatures on their employees’ IDs. (Now Brown’s spokeswoman says there might not be a redesign, after all.) Rumor had it the new cards were originally intended to have Brown’s photo on them, not just his name; his office denied that.
Earlier this year, the Post reported that Brown also ordered a $13,000 renovation of his council office so his budget and policy staff could be housed together in space that took up an entire wing of the Wilson Building. Certainly not a political felony, but when the city’s staring down the barrel of a potential $600 million budget gap, was it really necessary? In light of Navigatorgate, LL wonders whether the office redesign wasn’t just so Brown could feel more important.
At the time, the Post’s article cast Brown as a take-charge kind of guy who was putting his own stamp on the council.
“Look at the decisions I have made, look at the choices I have made,” Brown said. Take a look, indeed.
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery