Gray pulls nomination of controversial former AIDS official

J’Mia Edwards, a single mother of three living with HIV/AIDS, passing a public health advertisement in a D.C. park with her children in 2009. Debra Rowe, who worked for the former HIV/AIDS Administration from 1999 to 2008, has been accused of squandering millions of taxpayer dollars meant for AIDS patients in the city. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Mayor Vincent C. Gray has withdrawn the nomination of a controversial former District health official to a city board dealing with ex-offender policies.

Gray tapped Debra G. Rowe in January for the Commission on Re-Entry and Returning Citizen Affairs, established in 2006 to convene experts on how to better integrate former prisoners back into the city.

Rowe, who worked in the former HIV/AIDS Administration from 1999 to 2008 in various capacities, went before a D.C. Council committee in early March, where her nomination garnered no objections, according to a draft report. A vote for Rowe’s confirmation appeared on the D.C. Council agendas for Tuesday, but the nomination was pulled after concerns were raised about her background, said Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Three-and-a-half years ago, Rowe and her tenure as a city official were featured in a multi-part Washington Post series on waste in city AIDS programs. As director of housing programs for the HIV/AIDS Administration, the articles charged, Rowe gave millions to favored nonprofit groups that provided dubious services to the public.

In perhaps the most egregious case, Rowe approved $4.5 million in funding to one group, Miracle Hands, run by former drug kingpin Cornell Jones, who employed three relatives of Rowe’s, including her son. Part of the money was granted to open housing for HIV/AIDS patients in a former nightclub, a project that never materialized.

The D.C. attorney general’s office sued Miracle Hands in 2011 seeking more than $1 million in reimbursements, penalties and damages. The case is currently in mediation, according to court records.

Rowe, who is now the executive director of Returning Citizens United, a nonprofit of which Jones was a founding member, did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

Wells, who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety committee that handled Rowe’s nomination, said the nomination had moved well along in the process before any concerns were raised about Rowe’s background.

“We caught it pretty late,” he said Tuesday. “I think the mayor appreciated the heads up and not having an embarrassing discussion at the dais.”

Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said it was “obvious the nomination needed to be pulled,” saying Rowe’s background was overlooked as responsibility for vetting nominees was transferred between two departments in the mayor’s office.

“During the process of the move, the vetting and background checks that should have been done just didn’t get done,” he said. “When we noticed the mistake, we pulled the nomination.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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Mike DeBonis · April 30, 2013

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