A key figure in the unfolding controversy surrounding an affordable housing complex in Southeast Washington is also a major campaign organizer and contributor to D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser’s bid for mayor.
Phinis Jones is a former property manager at Park Southern Apartments, a sprawling set of towers along the District’s southern border that has fallen into deep disrepair, with mold, broken pipes, a leaky roof and rodent infestations amounting to daily indignations for its 700 residents. The property has become the subject of scrutiny after a Washington Post report detailing the building’s dilapidated conditions and its owner’s default on a $3 million city-backed loan.
Jones’s relationship with Bowser (D-Ward 4) further complicates the mayoral nominee’s involvement with Park Southern, which includes allegations by her political opponents that she intervened to protect a campaign supporter who is the president of the nonprofit corporation that owns the apartments. Bowser has denied that she acted improperly.
That supporter, Rowena Joyce Scott, is a longtime Democratic powerbroker in Southeast Washington who, during the Democratic primary campaign, switched from backing Mayor Vincent C. Gray to supporting Bowser. City officials have accused Scott and Park Southern’s board of “gross mismanagement” of the property.
City officials have accused Jones, who worked for Scott as a property manager at Park Southern, of failing to turn over nearly $300,000 in tenant rent collections from March and April. Jones denied the accusation and provided financial records Wednesday that he said proved he did nothing wrong.
As a result of the default on the loan, the city took over management of Park Southern. But the timing — the day after the April 1 primary — prompted accusations from Scott that the Gray administration was unfairly targeting her because she had backed Bowser in the election.
Bowser also questioned the Gray administration’s takeover of the property and asked city housing officials to meet with Scott and Jones, who was also seeking to purchase the property to get it out from under city oversight.
For two months, Jones resisted requests by the D.C. attorney general’s office and Department of Housing and Community Development to relinquish the funds. On Wednesday, Gray and his housing director, Michael Kelly, announced that Jones had finally provided not the money but an accounting of how it was spent.
Kelly characterized the report as confusing, and aides to the mayor said Gray has asked the city’s chief financial officer to conduct an audit of Jones’s explanation of how the funds were reportedly spent.
Jones provided a copy of the accounting to The Post. With his attorney and a senior aide, he explained that more than a third of the money, $126,000, went to utility payments; $57,000 was paid to employees, including Scott; and $66,000 was retained by Jones’s Capitol Services Management Inc.
“Now you know, the bills were paid,” said Jones, who criticized D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), one of Bowser’s opponents in the general election for mayor, for trying to make political hay out of the affair. “Muriel Bowser’s opponent is trying to put legs on this, and this thing just won’t walk. . . . It’s political, I understand that, but I have the facts for anyone who wants to be objective about it.”
Nonetheless, city officials — including Kelly and Chris Murphy, Gray’s chief of staff — said Jones’s accounting raised new questions. He paid nearly $10,000 to Scott over four weeks for acting as a “resident manager,” a job requiring her to address issues arising at night or on weekends, he said. Scott was also living rent-free, as she had since 2007.
The payments also continued to the end of May, a month after the city’s new property manager had changed the locks and barred Jones’s company from the building. Jones said some of the timing on the payments reflected a two-week payroll lag.
At Scott’s request, Jones said he also paid Scott’s attorney $10,000 at the end of May — four weeks after the locks were changed — to help Scott fight a lawsuit filed by tenants who claim she mismanaged funds and should be replaced as head of the nonprofit Park Southern Neighborhood Corp.
Additionally, Jones continued to pay his own company tens of thousands of dollars. Although he was no longer managing the property, he said, the city had never provided formal notice that his contract as property manager had expired. City officials said that is not true.
And Jones said he is holding $51,000 in escrow awaiting an expected legal fight with the city over the money.
A Ward 8 businessman for four decades, Jones helped build the charter school where Bowser held her primary victory party April 1.
He volunteered for her campaign and helped raise money in the city’s working-class neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Jones, eight companies he either controls or has a financial stake in, and an employee of one of those companies contributed a total of $20,000 to Bowser’s campaign.
Nearly half of that money came into her campaign account last month.
On Tuesday, Bowser asked the city’s inspector general to investigate Park Southern, saying in an interview that her decision to refer the matter to the lawyer should make clear that she has nothing to hide. Catania said the move came too late — months after she knew of allegations about mismanagement by Scott and Jones.
Jones said there is no connection between his campaign activities for Bowser and Park Southern, and he said none of the money he received for managing that property was used for political activities. He explained that the contributions were made last month because of Bowser’s reluctance to “bundle” contributions during the primary.
Once the primary was over, four of Jones’s small businesses and limited liability corporations each contributed the maximum $2,000.