Housing contracts went to board member's family

April 25, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Joanna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

Companies owned by the parents and sister of a Baltimore housing authority board member received no-bid contracts from the agency last year as part of a $23 million emergency repair program now under investigation by a federal grand jury.

Larry Jennings Jr., 30, said yesterday he didn't know the companies owned by his relatives had received no-bid contracts -- even though he attended a Nov. 16 meeting where a list of contractors was presented to the board by authority ombudsman Reginald Scriber.

Elias Contracting Corp., owned by Mr. Jennings' parents, Larry and Vergie Jennings, received contracts for renovation work, and Environmental Protection Co. Inc., owned by his sister, Georgia M. Page, received contracts for lead paint testing.

Late last month, federal prosecutors subpoenaed agency documents related to the work done by those companies and six other Maryland contractors.

A source close to the investigation said the grand jury will look into how contracts were awarded and whether work was properly performed and costs accounted for. It also will consider whether agency inspectors properly approved work done on certain units, the source said.

Mr. Jennings, a managing director at Legg Mason, said the no-bid contracts never came up during discussions with his family members.

Asked if his position as a board member played a role in the awarding of the contracts, Mr. Jennings said, "Absolutely not. Because I have absolutely no say over anything like that at all.

"All the stuff was done on emergency basis, and they had a rotating list of contractors, and I don't think anyone received preferential treatment or anything like that."

Larry Jennings Sr. declined to comment; efforts to reach Ms. Page were unsuccessful.

Last summer, Daniel P. Henson III, the housing authority's executive director, moved to cut the agency's waiting list by quickly renovating vacant and dilapidated units. He declared a housing emergency, which allowed the agency to sidestep rules requiring competitive bidding for the work. And the agency hired about 32 contractors to work on 1,136 units.

The grand jury probe into the work follows an FBI investigation that resulted in the conviction of a housing authority engineer on bribery charges. On March 30, John L. Dutkevich, 46, of Timonium, was sentenced to an 18-month prison term for accepting $25,000 to influence housing authority repair and renovation contracts.

Housing authority board Chairman Reginald Thomas said he is concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest because Mr. Jennings sits on the board and his relatives received no-bid contracts.

"Certainly, all are concerned about appearances," said Mr. Thomas, adding that he was unaware Mr. Jennings' relatives had received the no-bid contracts. "At the same time, if a company qualifies, they should be able to compete and participate."

He said the board will hold a special meeting next month to discuss the subpoenas of the housing authority records and the federal probe.

Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records show that Mr. Jennings' relatives incorporated their companies after he started serving on the housing authority board. His tenure began with his appointment by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on Jan. 1, 1988; he was appointed to another five-year term on Jan. 1, 1993.

Mr. Jennings' parents incorporated Elias Contracting in 1991, state records show. His sister incorporated Environmental Protection in September 1992, the records show.

Mr. Thomas said Elias Contracting and Environmental Protection had been awarded other contracts with the housing authority before the special no-bid program began.

Mr. Jennings confirmed that his relatives had received previous contracts. But he could not specify when the contracts were awarded, whether they were competitively bid or how much they were worth.

Mr. Henson said contractors were selected for the no-bid program based on prior work for the housing authority or through a state minority business enterprise outreach effort. About 25 of the 32 companies used for the no-bid program were new companies, he said.

Mr. Henson said the agency encountered some billing problems with Environmental Protection, which was hired to conduct lead paint tests on all 1,136 dwellings in the special vacancy program.

He defended the agency's hiring of Elias Contractors and said the contract with the company of a housing board member's family does not pose a conflict of interest.

Alan Yuspeh, chairman of Baltimore's board of ethics, said the local ethics law is vague regarding volunteers who sit on city-related boards -- such as the five members of the housing authority board -- and possible business conflicts. He said the board would investigate if a request for an advisory opinion is made or if a complaint is filed with the panel.

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