Staff Editorial: Fort Myer allegations merit further investigation

Muriel Bowser is the D.C. mayor. (Brian Kapur/The Current/February 2016)

When the government does something to benefit a campaign donor, any explanation or justification — even a wholly logical one — comes under a cloud of suspicion.

Accordingly, we’ve followed with concern the saga of Fort Myer Construction and its connection to last year’s shakeup at the D.C. Department of General Services, the agency responsible for constructing and maintaining city buildings. A new 1,000-page report by Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh draws troubling conclusions that require further investigation.

In a nutshell, agency director Christopher Weaver resigned after reportedly refusing an order from City Administrator Rashad Young to fire two of his top aides. The aides were involved with contract reform that reduced the weight granted to certified local businesses — such as Fort Myer — and also with denials of two major contracts to Fort Myer. The Ward 5-based Fort Myer has donated generously to many local politicians, including Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The Cheh report is filled with discomforting details: Notably, Mr. Young, the mayor’s top appointee, apparently took numerous steps to protect and assist Fort Myer. When the company’s bid submission on a key project at St. Elizabeths was missing information, the report says, he ordered the General Services Department to help the company address its errors. Fort Myer protested when it ultimately lost that contract — despite seeking nearly three times as much money as the winning bidder, and also being suspected of improperly obtaining confidential information on its competitor’s bid. Notwithstanding those issues, Mr. Young helped achieve a $4 million settlement for Fort Myer, according to the report. Other sections lay out a case that government officials as well as other contractors felt intimidated by the company’s power.

Overall, the Cheh report concluded, “Fort Myer appears to be a favored contractor” that is accustomed to high levels of access, deference and special assistance from government officials.

When The Washington Post sought comment from the Bowser administration, chief of staff John Falcicchio wrote back in a text message: “Malarkey.”

We can’t agree. The contents of the Cheh report merit further investigation, not casual dismissals. We applaud Ms. Cheh for fighting successfully to bring her report to light.

For his part, Mr. Young has defended his role by saying that he merely wanted to smooth things over with Fort Myer so that legal disputes wouldn’t slow down important city projects. The Cheh report found “no direct evidence of political influence” while also noting inconsistencies in his arguments, along with refusals by the Bowser administration to provide large amounts of requested information, citing legal loopholes.

The mayor must demonstrate a commitment to transparency in this matter. Fort Myer’s influence — real or at least widely perceived — risks stifling competition, leaving D.C. employees fearful of making a powerful enemy, and harming residents’ ability to trust their government. We see a need for further investigation by appropriate local authorities.