D.C. Council members use nonprofit to secure money for favored projects


D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) recently settled a city lawsuit that had alleged he used trust grants for a luxury sport-utility vehicle and personal travel. (The Washington Post)
August 11, 2011

D.C. Council members have used an independent nonprofit organization to steer millions of taxpayer dollars to favored charities, often with ties to friends or campaign donors, a Washington Post review shows.

The organization, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., was created by the council to decide independently which local charities best address problems facing city youths. But The Post’s review found that council members often influence those decisions, sometimes without public bids and despite a council ban on earmarks.

The trust was the go-between used by council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who recently settled a city lawsuit that had alleged he used trust grants for a luxury sport-utility vehicle and personal travel. Although there is no indication that other council members have financially benefited, some critics say the council members have used the trust in ways the council did not intend when it created the trust in 1999.

Several private donors have become so disenchanted with the trust that they have stopped participating in it. The trust’s board members are appointed by city officials, and it uses a combination of city funds and private donations, with most coming from taxpayers.

City officials directed more than $15 million in the past four years to the trust through earmarks or designated grants. The earmarks, which were standard practice until last year, specified a group without bidding. Under the ban on earmarks, designated grants specified only a purpose that required bidding, but some officials helped choose the recipients.

●Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) secured $387,000 from the trust for an ice arena whose board over time donated more than $13,000 to 10 city officials, including $550 to Alexander’s 2007-08 campaign.

●Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) sidestepped earmarks by allocating $1.5 million in designated grants to the trust and guiding the funds to several groups in his ward.

●Thomas also influenced the disbursement of $1 million in grants targeted for his ward, suggesting recipients, including several that did not file required tax documents.

Besides the instances involving council members, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration asked the trust to send $400,000 to an anti-gang group led by a Fenty supporter, according to interviews. A former Fenty official confirmed that account but declined to elaborate.

Alexander and Graham said they did not personally benefit or do anything wrong. Thomas’s office declined to comment.

The Post also found that although the trust requires grantees to report how they use the funds, it is unclear whether those reports are monitored. For instance, the trust could not confirm whether it had reviewed the $392,000 grant that Thomas allegedly spent on himself.

“The trust has been abused, kicked around and totally politicized,” said Max Skolnik, director and founder of Kid Power Inc., which runs learning programs for under-served youths. “It’s a tough trap, because we’re all beholden to the trust, but none of us are happy with how it’s operating.”

Ellen London, president of the trust, said that although she welcomes council members’ input, competitive grants are the best way to make sure that money goes to organizations that can get results.

“We were intended to be independent,” London said. “We can, where we need to, draw that line.”

Funds from the council to the trust have dwindled from $18 million in 2009 to $4.6 million this year, in part because of budget cutbacks and the end of earmarks. At the same time, the perception of political pressure on the trust has led several private donors to flee: The trust raised $500,000 this year from private donors, less than both London and City Council members had hoped.

Rubie G. Coles, associate director of the Moriah Fund, a Jewish social justice foundation, stopped contributing to the trust three years ago, when its leadership changed. “We hope that board members would be appointed who have expertise in youth development and have some real skills and experience,” Coles said. “That would go a long way.”

Donors, nonprofit leaders and council members need to have confidence in the trust’s ability to award public funds based on merit, said Winifred Carson-Smith, chairwoman of the trust’s board.

“This is an unbiased process,” she said. “This is totally about the children — this is not about who has influence with whom.”

Millions in earmarks

The grant that Thomas allegedly diverted was one of 65 earmarks, totaling more than $13 million, that the council sent to the trust between 2008 and 2010. (Thomas declined to comment but said in a statement that he settled “in the best interest of the city.”)

Two of those earmarks totaled $446,000 in 2008 and 2009 and benefited the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Its board chairman, John L. Ray, is a lobbyist and former council member who has contributed $17,510 to nine city officials. The organization’s director, Brenda Rhodes Miller, said it helps to have well-connected board members. “I wish I knew how it happened so it could happen again,” she said of the earmark.

In Ward 7, Alexander secured $387,000 in earmarks for the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, whose board donated $550 to her campaign in 2007-08 and $13,000 to nine other officials since 2004. Alexander said campaign contributions were not a factor, noting that she keeps a tally of organizations that do good work and need funding. “I think earmarks have a place, and I hope we consider bringing them back,” she said.

The Calvin Woodland Sr. Foundation, run by Graham’s chief of staff, Calvin Woodland Jr., received a $50,000 earmark in 2009. Graham, who chairs the committee overseeing the trust, said he played no role in the earmark. Woodland acknowledged that he drew a stipend from the earmark, but the council’s attorney advised him that there was no conflict of interest.

The now-defunct Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund also received money thorough the trust, in the form of a $500,000 check presented by council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). A foundation board member donated $6,650 to his and other officials’ campaigns since 2006. Evans was not available for comment.

And council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) secured several 2009 earmarks for groups in his ward with ties to him. Separately, he awarded a $15,000 contract to his girlfriend. Barry was censured and stripped of his committee chairmanship for failing to disclose the personal relationship, and the council discontinued earmarks last year.

‘Cancer in the system’

With earmarks off the table, officials found other ways to secure money for favored projects through the trust, the Post found.

Fenty city administrator Neil O. Albert said in an interview that he called then-trust Director Millicent Williams West and asked her to send $400,000 to Peaceoholics, an organization run by Fenty ally Ron Moten.

London, Carson-Smith and Albert confirmed the call, but Albert declined to elaborate. Neither Fenty nor West, now the District’s homeland security director, returned repeated messages. Moten said his connection to Fenty did not influence the grant.

The trust denied subsequent attempts by the Fenty administration to direct money through the trust, Carson-Smith said. “When we found out that money was not being administered in a fair and equitable manner, outside of what we considered appropriate, we asked that everything come to the board,” she said.

Last year, the council allocated $2.7 million in grants to the trust that did not name a recipient but could be guided toward a council member’s preferred organization. It designated $1 million for youth violence prevention in Ward 5, and London said Thomas met with the trust’s staff and suggested the groups he wanted funded.

One of them was Beacon House, which received $25,000 that Deputy Director Gerry Kittner said supported tutoring and mentoring programs.

“I went to Thomas’s staff and said, ‘What’s the story? Can we get some of this money?’ ” Kittner said. “We did a work plan, but it wasn’t competitive. . . . I felt like this was money that was out there, and we were a worthy recipient.”

Some of the recipients had ties to Thomas, such as the Cabel Foundation, whose advisory council includes Neil Rodgers, one of Thomas’s clerks; the foundation’s director, Ervin C. Owens, said Rodgers didn’t help him apply for the grant. Anthony “Coach Tony” Jones of the Falconsedge Male Task Force, an after-school sports and counseling program that received $40,000, said he and Thomas’s father are old friends.

Several of the organizations that received money from the Ward 5 grant could not be found or have failed to file required tax forms. Okera K. Stewart, director of Capitol Educational Support, which received $20,000 for its summer camp, said the organization fell behind on its paperwork but was in compliance when it received the grant. Building Better Environments, which received $45,000, had no tax filing, and the only agent listed on public records, Silas Grant Jr., said he never heard of the organization. Grant, who did not return calls for comment, is vice chairman of one of Ward 5’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.

Also last year, Graham designated a $1 million grant to the trust for a committee of three anti-gang organizations. Although the grant specified the recipients, Graham said it was not an earmark because those organizations then awarded competitive mini-grants. According to trust documents, the organizations awarded $705,000 to themselves, gave $125,000 to two groups, and the remainder was not spent.

In the 2011 budget, Graham authored another designated grant: $500,000 for “community-based targeted gang intervention and outreach.” Graham wanted the money for Green Teams — workers who pick up trash, shovel snow and remove graffiti — but the trust demurred, saying it couldn’t fund an organization that didn’t serve youths.

“That has not made us any friends on the city council — our budget has been heavily cut,” board member Bill Treanor said. “For some council members, if you’re not available as a slush fund, what’s your use? And we are no longer available.”

Instead, Graham said, the trust’s staff consulted his office about priorities for the funds. The grant application — which London said her staff discussed with Graham’s office — was narrowly tailored, such as by requiring that one of the awards go to a program at the Columbia Heights Community Center in Graham’s ward.

London said it is not unusual to consult politicians about grants. Graham denied he helped pick the recipients and said that the mayor’s office — not the council — trimmed the trust’s budget.

Treanor said the trust’s board is committed to protecting the trust’s independence.

“We do not want the council to pick the grantees,” he said. “It’s like cancer in the system. It’s not fair.”

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