By Cheryl W. Thompson, Mary Pat Flaherty and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money designated for community projects in Prince George's County have gone to organizations directly connected to the people doling out the money or with ties to County Executive Jack B. Johnson, according to records and interviews.
Johnson (D) personally delivered at least $10,000 in grants to politically powerful county churches as he was locked in a difficult race for reelection last summer, say church leaders, who said they had not requested the money.
County Council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton), who also ran for reelection last year, delivered grant money to youth groups that also had not applied for it.
Leaders at other community organizations that were listed as grant recipients by the committee distributing the funds said they had received no money, leaving unanswered questions about where it went.
Among those organizations is the county chapter of Christmas in April, which refurbishes homes for low-income elderly residents. The committee list says that it received $20,000. But the group got nothing, executive director Mary Kucharski said.
"That would buy us a lot of lumber," she said. "We'd appreciate it, but no, we didn't get it."
The money flows from an agreement reached three years ago between the county and Milton V. Peterson, developer of the $2 billion National Harbor project under construction along the Potomac River. The county agreed to provide millions of dollars for roads and sewers, and Peterson pledged to spend $350,000 a year for a decade to support community projects.
Since then, members of the National Harbor Community Outreach Program Committee, which has distributed nearly $700,000 in grants, have given $1 of every $4 to organizations with which they have close ties, according to interviews and a review of records by The Washington Post.
For example, the private school attended by the children of committee member Michael Arrington, a longtime Johnson friend and campaign contributor, received $25,500.
In some cases, the committee awarded money to recipients multiple times under different program names. In other instances, a $10,000 check was sent to a "male mentoring" program that operates out of a Landover post office box, and another $10,000 check went to a group that couldn't deposit it because it had no bank account.
Arrington, who was appointed to the grant committee by Peterson, defended the panel, saying he is confident that the fund is benefiting the community. At the same time, he said, based on questions from The Post, "I am investigating whether some of the authorized charities may not have received their checks."
He did not answer questions about whether the panel gave Johnson checks to distribute before last fall's election.
The seven members of the grant committee were appointed by Peterson, Johnson and council members whose districts are nearest National Harbor. The panel produced records this year for the County Council indicating that 108 groups have received money. The groups were chosen from more than 1,000 applicants.
Faced with a glut of applications, the committee abandoned a formal rating system that it initially had used to rank a project's potential impact, feasibility and accountability. Instead, members discussed an application and arrived at consensus without formally voting, said Veronica Davila, a committee member appointed by County Council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant).
The rating system "became grueling" at committee meetings, Davila said. "We only had an hour or two and would spend 30 to 45 minutes on tallying and discussing the organization."
Peterson said that after he wrote the $350,000 checks each year, it was up to the committee to decide how to spend the money. "We have no involvement with where it goes, and we want to keep it that way," he said in an interview.
Johnson has described the National Harbor committee as an independent group and said he "didn't have anything to do" with giving out the money. When asked about two weeks ago about church officials' statements that he handed out checks, Johnson said, "I don't recall giving" National Harbor funds.
Last week, he said in an interview that if he did hand out checks at churches, "more than likely the money came from my foundations. I do quite a bit of work and give a lot of money out."
At Tabernacle Church in Laurel, the pastor, G. Randolph Gurley, recalls acknowledging the county executive during a service July 2.
"He was sitting on the front row," Gurley said. "He said a developer had blessed some of the churches, and we were one of them."
Gurley said Johnson personally gave him an envelope containing a $2,500 check dated May 25, and Gurley said the check indicated that the money came from the National Harbor program. He said he used the money for the church's summer youth program.
On July 16, Johnson stopped by the annual Community Day event at Queens Chapel United Methodist Church in Beltsville with a $2,000 check from the National Harbor fund, said church member Pamela Sharps, who was chairman of the event. Johnson "just said he had something to present," she said. She said no one from the church had applied for a community grant. "Absolutely not. It was a gift and a pleasant surprise."
Leaders from two other churches also said Johnson presented them with checks.
After a news report that raised questions about the grant program, Johnson announced last month that the committee had formed a partnership with the Prince George's Community Foundation, which distributes community grants, to establish written rules and publish an annual report.
Arrington said that although committee members have a "strong history of community involvement, none of our members have the accounting background or management experience that a fund of this nature requires, which is why we are transferring the management of the fund to the Community Foundation."
The Peterson Cos. is scheduled to make another $350,000 payment to the committee next month.Who Has Benefited
Across the county, various community groups have reported using the money for a range of programs, including aiding elderly residents, sending children to basketball camps and ice skating competitions. But numerous grants did not stray far from the committee awarding them.
The largest, $50,000, went to the Collective Banking Group, a consortium of Washington area churches, records show. A board member, the Rev. Kerry Hill, is on the National Harbor committee. Hill, who was appointed to the grant committee by Johnson, said only that he has "no financial benefit [in] this group."
Two grants totaling $35,000 went to the Woods End Homeowners Association in Oxon Hill, records show. Davila is the association's president.
"Veronica's been very resourceful. I'm giving her great credit for having brought the money in," said Cynthia Rudolph, an association board member.
Rudolph said the group received $10,000 last year to buy software for an online tutoring program for children in the community but said they're "still assessing" it. "We haven't really purchased the software just yet," she said.
The other Woods End grant, for $25,000, went toward refurbishing a playground, Rudolph said.
Davila said she does not think that a group should be barred from receiving a grant because it has ties to a committee member.
"You're not getting the money based on the relationship. The funds are being granted on the need," Davila said.
Arrington said he sees no conflict in the committee's decision to award money to his daughters' school and Brownie troop in Upper Marlboro. The Henson Valley Montessori School was the only private school receiving money from the committee. In addition to the $25,500 it received, its parents association received $3,000 and Brownie Troop 5465 got $2,500, records show.
"To me, that doesn't pose any kind of a conflict," Arrington said. "My children benefit by going to the school. I get no benefit at all."
Rhonda Mitchell, a parent volunteer at the school and co-leader of the Brownie troop, said she did not apply for the money but learned about the available funding from Arrington's wife, Debra, also a school volunteer. "Her husband works with National Harbor, and that's how we knew about it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that Arrington signed the check and gave it to his wife, who passed it on to her. The money went toward a mother-daughter tea, a father-daughter bowling event and other activities, Mitchell said.
The $25,500 grant to the school was for scholarships for needy children, Arrington said. The $3,000 grant was used for a silent auction.
As the Peterson representative on the committee, Arrington maintains the group's records, including the applications. He and Davila are the committee members authorized to sign the grant checks. Davila said Arrington maintains the committee's checkbook.
A group headed by another committee member, James Haynes, received a $10,000 grant. The check, written in May to the Prince George's chapter of the Maryland State Child Care Association, went directly to Haynes, said his wife, Lynnette. James Haynes is president of the county chapter, and his wife is vice president.
"The minutes say, 'Mr. Haynes received a check from the National Harbor Committee,' " she said, reading from the record of a chapter meeting May 17. " 'We will be setting up a budget with specific goals.' But that's all it says."
The organization had no bank account at the time, she said, and still has not spent the money. Haynes, who was appointed to the grant committee by County Council member Bland, lives in Washington. He declined to comment.Missing Grants
The National Harbor committee said in a February letter to the council that it was "very proud of the work that has been done to evaluate grant requests and provide resources to diverse programs." But not all of the organizations it listed as recipients received money, agency leaders said.
Leaders of three Girl Scout troops in Kentland said they did not receive a total of $7,500 reported by the committee for field trips.
The panel reported giving the Prince George's sheriff's department three grants, for $5,100, $5,000 and $8,000. Department officials said the agency received two of the grants but not the $8,000 grant.
"We keep very good records," said Norma Harley, manager of the agency's Domestic Violence Intervention-Community Services and Victim Advocate Unit, which was listed as receiving the $8,000 grant. "It was $5,000."
Four heads of parent-teacher groups and leaders of five Boy Scout troops said Bland presented them with checks in June. None of those groups had applied, their leaders said. The parent-teacher groups received $500 each for supplies, and the troops got $2,500 each for camping trips, committee records indicate.
Jon Coleman, president of the Friendly High School PTSA, said that in June, his group was given a day's notice about a luncheon at the Marlborough Country Club. "Someone in council member Bland's office" called the school to say " 'come pick up a $500 check,' " he said. The event "was essentially Marilynn Bland announcing she was running again, and Jack Johnson was there saying she was great," Coleman said.
Bland declined to comment, but David Billings, her chief of staff, said her office was asked to distribute the checks by Haynes, a grant committee member. The presentation of funds was not tied to her campaign, Billings said, because it preceded her official reelection announcement.
Grants totaling $14,000 went to organizations with ties to Jerusalem AME Church in Clinton, records show. The pastor is Diane H. Johnson, wife of James Johnson, a special assistant to the county executive, to whom he is not related. James Johnson helped the National Harbor committee with administrative work and attended meetings, committee member Joseph Henson said.
Diane Johnson's church received a $5,000 check, a tutoring and job training nonprofit that she heads received a $7,500 grant, and $1,500 went to a cheerleading squad that listed the church address on its application, records show. The group rehearses at the church, she said.
Johnson said she doesn't remember how the $5,000 was spent but said the $7,500 went toward a summer music program. Committee records show that the church and the nonprofit requested the two grants to help needy students with book awards, tuition assistance and food in a summer camp program.