Ex-Official Sues Over Dismissal in Road Contract Case

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; B04

A former top official in the D.C. Department of Transportation accused the agency's director of firing him because he exposed what he said were improper contracts between Fort Myer Construction Co. and two firms hired to work on city road projects, according to a lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court.

Stephen P. Amos, who worked as chief of staff for Emeka Moneme, also said then-General Counsel Peter Nickles did not offer to protect him and his subordinates from retaliation for the disclosures.

Amos, who was hired last summer, claims that he was fired in January after he tried to pressure D.C. officials to take action against two District companies, Fort Myer and Peake Construction. Amos claims that the two firms collaborated to qualify for funding preferences for "disadvantaged firms," even though Peake was little more than a front for a third-party contractor that did the work.

Nickles, who is now the city's interim attorney general, acknowledged that Amos met with him late last year, but he said Amos failed to provide any evidence to prove his allegations. Nickles said he urged Amos to meet with the D.C. inspector general's office.

"It troubles me when I provide immediate access to my office and I refer the man to the IG . . . and he meets with me" and does not provide evidence, Nickles said. "Then he writes a complaint and tries to get attention."

Adam Augustine Carter, Amos's attorney, called his client a "courageous whistle-blower."

"He was tasked with investigating corruption in D-DOT and then terminated for talking about what had been discovered to Nickles and Moneme," Carter said.

The lawsuit, filed in March, claims that Fort Myer fraudulently qualified for federal funds by subcontracting with Peake Construction, which then hired DEN United General of Woodbridge to do the work.

In the suit, Amos described Peake as a "shell company with no vehicles, equipment, business office or viable assets."

Chris Kerns, general counsel for Fort Myer, denied any wrongdoing and said Peake is a legitimate company.

According to a letter obtained by The Washington Post, Peake signed an agreement with DEN United in April 2007 to use its crews and equipment on a Foxhall Road construction project.

A spokesman for Peake Construction said the company can provide documentation to substantiate that it is in good standing as a disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) and that it was in compliance with the city's contract.

"This partnership agreement between DEN United was approved by D-DOT prior to them starting work on Foxhall Road," said Andre Johnson, a spokesman for Peake. "There's nothing wrong with a small DBE company renting construction equipment. We have certified payroll documentation that shows everybody that worked on that project worked for Peake Construction."

Amos claims the D-DOT officials ignored Fort Myer's actions because of past relationships with D.C. officials. Amos claims that the agency's former director, Dan Tangherlini, had been counseled by a compliance officer about his relationship with Fort Myer.

"I think he refused to meet," Kerns said of Tangherlini. "He was always careful not to do that."

Nickles, who said he was also speaking for Tangherlini, said the city is not going to respond to "every wild allegation by anyone who got fired."

Nickles said he kept an e-mail from Amos in December. The e-mail is outlined in the lawsuit.

In that e-mail, Amos said he wanted to summarize "for the record our communications" regarding his allegations. In the Dec. 12 e-mail, obtained by The Washington Post, Amos said he and Danette Walker-Mincey, the agency's chief of the Integrity Compliance Unit, were concerned about handing over documents to Nickles or the inspector general without being protected from retaliation.

In the e-mail, Amos said he faced an increasingly hostile work environment after not following his superiors' orders to deal internally with the accusations against the companies. After meeting with the inspector general's office, Amos said, Moneme screamed that Amos had betrayed him, stripped him of his responsibilities and later told him, "You're done," the lawsuit said.

Amos is suing to have his $134,500 salaried job reinstated, and for punitive and compensatory damages.

Moneme and Walker-Mincey declined to comment on the suit because it deals with personnel issues, said Karyn LeBlanc, a spokeswoman for D-DOT.

Officials from DEN United General could not be reached for comment.

In a memo to Amos, Francisco Edwin Gonzalez, equal opportunity specialist in the transportation agency, said that Pessoa Construction, a disadvantaged subcontractor working for Fort Myer, had contracted work to Anchor Construction, which was not a disadvantaged firm. Fort Myer later acknowledged the mistake and asked for a waiver because the work was near the new Nationals stadium and on a tight deadline. Gonzalez had also visited Peake's work site and reported his findings to Amos.

LeBlanc said Gonzalez could not comment on the suit because it deals with personnel issues.

Officials from Pessoa and Anchor could not be reached for comment.

"We use Peake Construction and Pessoa Construction as subcontractors on a variety of jobs, and they are legitimate contractors," said Kerns, the spokesman for Fort Myer. "They've been in business a long time. The heads of their organizations are legitimate and complete businessmen. That's why we use them."

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