Ahead of birthday fundraiser, Catania questions Bowser’s supporters


File: Muriel Bowser at a fundraiser in 2013. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

It’s not often that a political candidate sees the need to promote a competitor’s fundraising events, but independent mayoral hopeful David Catania has found a reason.

On Thursday evening, Democratic rival Muriel Bowser will greet hundreds of supporters at a 42nd birthday event in Takoma. An invitation her campaign e-mailed to supporters Tuesday included a list of no fewer than 586 “hosts” backing Bowser’s mayoral bid.

That list — while demonstrative perhaps of Bowser’s broad political support, including the names of numerous D.C. Council colleagues and former mayor Anthony A. Williams — also gave Catania an opening to criticize the backgrounds of a few of her supporters.

“Tonight, the District’s political establishment is throwing Muriel Bowser a birthday party where they’ll fête her with campaign contributions,” Catania’s campaign wrote in a Thursday e-mail to its supporters. “Here are just a few of the illustrious Washingtonians who are hosting tonight’s Bowser fundraiser.” (That anti-establishment line of attack was buttressed Thursday with a vivid “David vs. The Machine” tweet.)

The e-mail names no names, but the identities are hardly secret to the savvy political observer:

• A reference to Bowser’s “Ward 8 coordinator, who allegedly collected $300,000 in rental payments from low-income residents at the Park Southern apartment complex that is now missing,” points to Phinis Jones, a longtime political muckamuck now embroiled in the Park Southern mess. Jones denies that the $300,000 is missing, having a provided an accounting to the city showing that most of the funds went to pay vendors, though part of it remains in escrow for management fees he says he is owed.

• “A former government official who was investigated by the FBI for waste and fraud in allocating grant money intended for HIV/AIDS programs” points to Debra Rowe, whose mismanagement of HIV/AIDS housing funds was detailed in a 2009 Washington Post series. She is now an outspoken activist for ex-offender rights, though her appointment last year to a city board on “returning citizen” affairs was withdrawn after concerns were raised about her background. Last week, a judge ordered one of Rowe’s grantees to pay the city $1 million in damages for making false claims to support the grants.

• “The co-owner of the controversial Stadium Club strip club, which was, according to the Attorney General, built with city HIV/AIDS grant money” points to Keith Forney, a Ward 5 businessman who has been connected with several controversies but never accused of wrongdoing. The strip club figures into the very same HIV/AIDS grant controversy connected to Rowe, with city lawyers accusing Forney’s onetime business partner of directing city grant funds to the club. (That partner, Cornell Jones, denies having spent any city funds to build the club.) Forney also found himself in the news for giving a $2,800 gift to D.C. Council member Marion Barry in 2012 — a gift Barry shouldn’t have taken, given that Forney is a city contractor, and for which Barry agreed to pay a $13,600 fine.

Responding for the Bowser campaign Thursday, spokesman Joaquin McPeek said the appearance of three controversial names on a long list of supporters does not reflect badly on the candidate. “There are thousands of people who have given to this campaign, and we’re proud of the momentum that we continue to build,” he said.

McPeek went on to question Catania’s reference to “the District’s political establishment,” calling it “ironic that one of the longest-serving council members in D.C. history says he’s anti-establishment.”

Ben Young, campaign manager for the 17-year council veteran, said time in office doesn’t necessarily make Catania part of the establishment. “From the moment David first ran for office, he’s been anti-establishment,” Young said, noting Bowser comes from a family long active in city politics and calling her supporter list “a who’s-who of hangers-on and political retreads.”

“The general public can look at this race and see which candidate is taking on the political establishment,” he added.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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