‘Fully loaded’ SUV puts D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown on the spot
Several weeks after Kwame R. Brown was elected D.C. Council chairman in November, city officials were asked to order for him a “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigator L with a DVD entertainment system, power moonroof and polished aluminum wheels.
It had to be black – all black, inside and out – and it had to arrive in time for his inauguration Jan. 2, never mind the District’s projected $400 million budget shortfall.
Later, when he was asked on television why taxpayers should foot the $1,900-a-month lease payments, Brown (D) said he had merely requested a black sport-utility vehicle and was driving the vehicle that the District had procured for him.
E-mails written by members of his staff and city officials – and obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act – tell a different story, beginning with a Department of Public Works solicitation in November for a 2011 Lincoln Navigator L series, an extended-wheelbase version of the Navigator. The e-mail specified "Fully Loaded Required" and indicated that the vehicle was being sought at Brown’s request.
Paul D. Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, asked why Brown is leasing a luxury vehicle when the city is under serious financial pressure.
"It shows his set of priorities, and it’s totally ridiculous to anyone who pays D.C. taxes when they hear this type of story," Craney said of Brown.
Brown said last week in an interview that he had asked only for a "black-on-black SUV" and regrets the whole affair. "If I had known that this truck was $1,900 a month, I would have never, ever, ever have accepted it," he said.
As it happened, the District was stuck paying for two Lincoln Navigator L’s after the first arrived with a gray interior and Brown insisted on the black-on-black color scheme, touching off a scramble for the model he wanted. A car dealer ended up driving Brown’s Lincoln from Coldwater, Mich., to the District on Dec. 29 – for an additional $1,500. The District cannot return the one with the gray interior until October.
Why black-on-black? Vehicles with dark interiors, Brown said, tend to hold their value better.
Brown said he accepts "full responsibility" for the situation. "Believe me, I want nothing more [than] to be out of this particular truck, and it’s unfortunate that the contract is written in a way we can’t get out of it," he said.
In addition to Brown’s two Navigators, the District is leasing a pair of luxury vehicles for Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
The D.C. police ordered a "fully loaded" 2011 Navigator L for Gray, at $1,941 a month. Gray’s office ordered a new Lincoln Town Car for staff use, at $1,785 a month. Washington City Paper initially reported on the price of Gray’s and Brown’s Navigators.
William Howland, the District’s director of public works under three mayors, said in an interview that he was not aware of any previous council chairman-elect requesting personal use of a city vehicle. But he procured Brown’s vehicles, he said, after Brown’s transition team cited a law passed in September that allows elected officials to use city vehicles during the transition period.
Brown was initially given a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV – similar to the vehicle that Gray had used as council chairman – as DPW officials went to work securing a Lincoln Navigator L.
The L model, fully loaded, includes 20-inch polished aluminum wheels, the power moonroof, touch-screen navigation, a DVD entertainment system in the back with an eight-inch screen, a rearview camera system and a premium 600-watt sound system.
Asked where the specifications originated, Howland said: "We provide them the vehicle that they want."
On Dec. 9, a leasing agent e-mailed District officials that she had found "the only Navigator L in inventory within a 6 state area" – for $1,769 a month. But it didn’t have the rear entertainment system that the city had requested and the interior was "stone," or gray, not black.
A DPW official wrote back the next day to accept the vehicle, noting that "we would like the vehicle to be delivered as close to Dec 20th as possible." Howland e-mailed Brown on Dec. 20, telling him the SUV would be ready the next day. But the exchange of vehicles did not go smoothly. Brown rejected the vehicle, he said in an interview, because of the gray interior.
The next afternoon, Nyasha Smith – a D.C. Council staff member who was the incoming council secretary, its chief administrative officer – e-mailed Howland: "We requested from Department of Public Works in October a black Navigator, black-on-black interior, GPS, power moon [roof], rear entertainment system and aluminum wheels. Notwithstanding our timely request, we were not apprised of the difficulty in procuring the requested vehicle within the time frame and only yesterday, upon the vehicle’s delivery, realized that we did not get what was requested, I am trying to get what is requested."
Smith sent a copy of the e-mail to Allen Y. Lew, the incoming city administrator, "so we all can come to a timely resolution together."
Howland called her back within a half-hour and then explained in an e-mail that a vehicle with an all-black interior had been found in Kansas City but would have taken two weeks to deliver – too late for Brown’s inauguration.
"Given that we were trying to deliver the vehicle as soon as possible we compromised on the color of the interior," Howland wrote. "I take full responsibility on that issue."
He gave Smith three choices: Keep the Navigator L with the gray interior, order the Kansas City vehicle or order another model, such as the more common standard-length Navigator, with an all-black interior. He did not mention that, in any case, the city would have to pay for the rejected SUV.
Smith responded 15 minutes later: "Chair-Elect Brown would like to go forward with the vehicle from the midwest," she wrote. "In the meantime we will keep the vehicle that was delivered yesterday. Just to make sure, we want black-on-black, rear entertainment system, gps, moon roof, aluminum wheels." Howland told Lew that he would look into speeding up delivery.
Howland and Brown met that evening. Brown said Howland assured him that there would be no additional cost for replacing the SUV. Howland said in an interview that price had generally not been discussed with Brown or his staff throughout the process of procuring the SUVs. But he said he did not recall details of that particular conversation.
Meanwhile, a DPW administrator worked to find a Navigator L that met Brown’s specifications and that could be delivered on time. A Lincoln dealer in Mississippi found one in Coldwater, Mich. – at $1,963 a month, about $200 more a month than the first vehicle.
The next morning, Smith e-mailed Howland, with copies sent to Lew and City Administrator Neil O. Albert: "I understand that we will have the vehicle by Wednesday" – six days later. "This is great news! Thanks again for your attention and personal involvement in getting this resolved immediately." Howland explained in another e-mail later in the day that someone would drive the SUV from Michigan to the District.
The SUV arrived late on Dec. 29. But there was a problem: The Navigator had a two-tone interior that was "charcoal black" with tan seats. This sent DPW officials into a panic.
About 9:30 a.m., Howland called Albert and Lew to tell them the SUV had tan seats. Neither picked up the phone. "I am going to call Kwame and see what he wants to do," Howland wrote in an e-mail.
Brown decided to take the SUV, tan seats and all.
At 5:04 p.m., Howland e-mailed Albert and Lew: "Kwame’s car was delivered to him about 15 minutes ago. Happy New Year, Bill."