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A mayor’s house, contractors and a web of self-dealing

Accountabilityby Fern Shen and Mark Reutter5:10 pmApr 4, 20190

Healthy Holly buyer J.P. Grant is silent partner in company that got massive city conduit project

The same company extensively renovated Mayor Pugh’s new house at a discounted price

Above: In 2012 Grant came to the rescue of former mayor Rawlings-Blake’s ill-fated Grand Prix. (Mark Reutter)

The Columbia businessman who has acknowledged paying Mayor Catherine Pugh $114,000 for her Healthy Holly books, James Preston (J.P.) Grant, is a secret backer of a company awarded a conduit construction contract that could grow to $100 million or more, multiple sources have told The Brew.

That company, Commercial Construction, an affiliate of Commercial Group LLC of Hanover, Md., also performed extensive renovation work on the mayor’s new house at a heavily discounted price, The Brew previously disclosed.

New furnace, plumbing fixtures, electrical panels and roof – as well as a new deck and custom clothes closets – were added by the company at 20% of the true cost or less, sources have said.

Joining up with KCI Technologies, the Grant-financed construction company pulled off a big win at the Board of Estimates last December.

Commercial-KCI got speedy approval of a so-called “technical correction” that doubled the price of the project to $50 million, making it one of the costliest infrastructure contracts now underway in the city.

The city Department of Transportation said the contract’s original price tag of $26 million, approved in 2016, was a mistake.

So the board voted in December to increase that original contract by $24 million. The agenda item noted that DOT could continue to add items to the contract until $100 million was reached.

A young company with no track record in conduit work got one of the costliest infrastructure contracts now underway in Baltimore.

Nobody on the board asked whether what amounted to a $74 million error – $100 million compared to $24 million – was truly a mistake. There was no discussion at all before Mayor Pugh and the other BOE members approved the sizeable contract bump.

(All five members of the board approved the increase, including City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt.)
More on Mayor’s House Renovation

Connected contractor renovated Pugh’s house at a discount, sources say (4/4/19)

Mayor purchased new house during the time she received Healthy Holly payments (3/25/19)
The contract (TR-16020) covers the repair, upgrade and capacity expansion of conduits that carry electric, telephone and fiber-optic cables under city streets. Users of the system pay into a conduit fund that finances these improvements.

The contract amount is many times more than Commercial’s financial worth of $8 million, according to pre-qualification papers filed with the city.

The company has no prior experience doing conduit repairs and lacks sufficient manpower to do the work by itself, mid-level DOT officials have told their superiors.

Instead, Commercial is relying on Spiniello Companies to repair the underground lines and install new manhole covers, with the next phase of work already underway along Greenmount Avenue in Waverly.

Phones Not Answered

Grant could not be reached to respond for this story. No one was picking up the phone today at his Grant Capital Management Inc. office.

As The Brew has previously reported, Grant has been a major campaign contributor and mayoral booster across multiple City Hall regimes.

Kevin M. Johnson, president and CEO of Commercial, also could not be reached. His cellphone’s voicemail box was full today. He has not responded to text and emailed messages.

Kevin Johnson seated with then-Mayor Rawlings-Blake at a 2011 Urban League gala whee he won an award for

Kevin Johnson seated with then-Mayor Rawlings-Blake at a 2011 Urban League gala where he won an award for “exemplary business acumen.” (Brew file photo(

More on Conduit Contract Increase

DOT admits to a $74 million mistake. BOE shrugs and approves funds anyway (12/21/18)

•  Former City Hall insider heads up conduit project whose price has skyrocketed (12/24/18)

“JP news rattled them all”

Johnson is said to be laying low in the wake of the disclosure that Grant was one of several people and institutions that wrote large checks for Pugh’s self-published children’s books.

The unfolding scandal has led Pugh to take a leave of absence as mayor as well as prompted an investigation by the State Prosecutor and thrown the political establishment in Baltimore and Annapolis into an uproar.

It has also triggered panic in the offices of Commercial.

“It is all the talk, and Kevin is in low-profile mode,” a knowledgeable source said. “He is partners with JP on that big utility contract, so the JP news rattled them all.”

441 Days Late: No Problem

The conduit overhaul is just one of the jobs that Commercial companies are working on in the city right now.

Current projects include the redevelopment of the Tractor Building at Clipper Mill and the apartment-retail project at the former Hendler’s ice cream plant in East Baltimore.

Commercial Group CEO Kevin Johnson, far left, with Mayor Catherine Pugh and (far right) J.P. Grant at an October event where the two men's companies helped sponsor. (Mayor Catherine Pugh Facebook)

Commercial Group CEO Kevin Johnson, far left, with Mayor Pugh and (far right) J.P. Grant at an October event that their companies helped sponsor. (Catherine Pugh Facebook)

Past jobs that Commercial has undertaken have been hampered by delays and missteps, according to past reporting.

This 2017 Brew story, for instance, details questions raised about the way Commercial got the job to build a new Greyhound Bus Station near the Horseshoe Casino.

Johnson challenged the low bidder, who was then knocked out on a minor technicality after the Maryland Department of Transportation (headed then by James T. Smith Jr., now a top Pugh advisor) intervened on his behalf.

After four contract extensions, the project was 441 days late when it came before newly elected Mayor Pugh and other members of the Board of Estimates. The board simply okayed a fifth extension.

Delays at Howard Park ShopRite

The lengthy process of bringing a new ShopRite supermarket to Howard Park – a neighborhood upgrade the community had sought from City Hall for decades – was apparently made lengthier by mistakes that Johnson’s company made.

Pushed by the Rawlings-Blake administration  to use Commercial “for site and shell-work,” Klein’s Family Markets soon found out that the company was not up to the task, a source with knowledge of the project said this week.

“Commercial just didn’t have the back-end support,” according to the source. “They had never done stormwater management. There was water build-up on the site. They failed to get the roof done right.”

Howard Park community president Preston Greene stands in front of the cleared ShopRite site this morning.

Howard Park community president Preston Greene stands in front of the cleared ShopRite site in 2012. (Mark Reutter)

The supermarket finally opened to great fanfare in July 2014, but the celebration took place after many costly delays.

“Commercial had to make bio-retention ponds and they had never done that before,” the source said. “It was very expensive to fix.”

Halfway through, Commercial lost its MBE (minority business enterprise) status, another blow to Klein’s bottom line.

“At that point they were kind of stuck with them,” the source said. “I really felt sorry for the Kleins.”
To reach the reporters:

Fern Shen at fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com 410-802-4990 and Mark Reutter at reuttermark@yahoo.com.

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