Correction to This Article
A Nov. 28 article misidentified the organization of which Rick Cohen is the executive director. It is the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, not the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy.
Blank Check: Good Intentions Gone Awry

Lavish Spending, Little Reward

McKinley Technology High School was renovated and reopened last year but without the business technology campus Archie Prioleau was paid to design.
McKinley Technology High School was renovated and reopened last year but without the business technology campus Archie Prioleau was paid to design. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
By David S. Fallis and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 28, 2005

Archie Prioleau's finances were in shambles when District officials entrusted him with $1.7 million in grants in 1998. His mission was to outfit a state-of-the-art computer center in Southwest Washington to train needy city residents, then place them in jobs.

Prioleau, a charming, politically connected businessman who was emerging from bankruptcy, first helped himself.

With the District's approval, he gave himself an $82,000 salary and paid his brother $8,000 as a consultant. He spent $25,000 for signature artwork and a matching stainless steel table. He bought $6,000 chairs, a new blue sport-utility vehicle and a silver van, personalized with vanity tags. He spent $143 to settle debts at a florist and rush a "Happy Birthday" bouquet to the D.C. Council member who approved his grants. He billed taxpayers for it all.

Over seven years, District officials sank nearly $5.4 million into his projects. Three city agencies gave him multiple contracts, and four others had a role in making sure he was paid.

But when Prioleau's foundation collapsed last year, the city's investment evaporated. Most of the furnishings had been sold at public auction after languishing in a warehouse for almost two years. About $195,000 worth of equipment was sold for slightly less than $9,000, just to pay a storage bill. Prioleau closed his training center.

Prioleau defended his work in interviews over the course of a year and reported to the D.C. government that his center had trained thousands of disadvantaged people. But city officials say there are no records to verify that number.

The story of Archie Prioleau and his dealings with the District is one of broader failings -- the propensity across city agencies to violate their policies as they dispense public funds with little attention to how the money is spent.

In their dealings with Prioleau, District leaders ignored signs of his financial troubles, handpicked him for a major project without requiring him to compete and broke contracting rules when they paid him. They rubber-stamped his bills and only intermittently held him accountable. Officials did not know the extent of his spending problems until The Washington Post investigated. But the evidence was often sitting in their files.

Most of the funding that flowed to Prioleau over the years came from three agencies.

The Department of Housing and Community Development let him spend lavishly on the $4.6 million computer training center he called DC Link and Learn. But for years, the agency failed to carefully track Prioleau's work, records show. After questions this year from The Post, federal monitors investigated and told the city this month that it must repay the federal government the $1.7 million unless it proves that needy people were trained and the spending was proper.

The Department of Employment Services, which employed Prioleau's nonprofit group to train and find work for young people, let him hire his company and equip a new office while he was paying to keep furniture and computers in storage. In March, the agency hired outside auditors to review his spending.

The Office of the Chief Technology Officer paid Prioleau $377,000 in 2002 to plan a fundraising gala and help design a business campus at McKinley Technology High School, despite warnings from a city official and others that he might not be able to deliver. The gala never happened, and the campus was never built.

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