By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
Ever since he was a kid mowing lawns and shoveling snow, Ronald Moten has known how to hustle.
"I was always the guy who went and got the money," said Moten, a onetime teenage drug dealer who runs a District nonprofit group called Peaceoholics that works with at-risk youths -- and recently tried to help the city donate a firetruck and ambulance to a town in the Dominican Republic.
For days, that seeming disconnect -- why would Peaceoholics be involved in such a donation? -- has been the subject of questions and consternation as members of the D.C. Council have sought answers from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration.
Attorney General Peter Nickles noted that the donation involved outdated equipment originally purchased for $316,027, and he described the market value as "minimal." He also said the city has donated surplus property to nonprofit groups and foreign countries before.
The flap has drawn attention to the dizzying growth of Peaceoholics and to Moten, 39, the group's chief operations officer and a go-to man for the mayor.
In four years, the group has become a multimillion-dollar operation with 70 full- and part-time workers and consultants, including Moten's father and son. Much of the funding in those four years has come from city contracts and grants totaling $7.6 million. Moten's salary is $111,108, up from the $42,930 in 2005, when the nonprofit had $341,093 in contributions, according to public tax filings.
Fenty (D) said the city's support of the nonprofit is well worth it. "It's such a small fraction of our budget," he said. "They get us the bang for the buck."
The group, co-founded by Moten and another social activist, Jauhar Abraham, 41, boasts of breaking up gangs, keeping countless youths from returning to jail and helping 52 young people make it to college.
City officials and others often go to Peaceoholics for help -- to counsel public school students, to develop 32 units of affordable housing in a $4.4 million deal, to help get a used firetruck and ambulance to a town in the Dominican Republic.
Under questioning from council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) at a hearing last week, Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said he was recently made aware of the donation and a visit this year by fire and other government officials to determine the town's need for the equipment. But Mendelson noted that Rubin provided a March 4 report on travel expenses, showing that a deputy chief's six-day trip cost $810.
Nickles said in a report Friday that he found no wrongdoing. But Mendelson and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) have asked the inspector general to investigate.
Things got so heated that Moten returned the equipment, which had gotten as far as Miami, to the District last week. A council oversight hearing is scheduled for today.
"Will we give District property to an organization to allow it to immediately turn around and give it to someone else? And who will supervise this?" Cheh asked in a statement.
Moten said the donation was tied to efforts by Peaceoholics and another nonprofit, Faith Productions, to send teenagers to the Dominican Republic for a boxing tournament. The groups have established a cultural exchange program with the town of Sosua, and its mayor asked for help with fire equipment. Moten said he was simply the one who could get it done.
"I've known Mo since I was young," said Fenty, 38, who seemed unusually relaxed as he and Moten recalled old friends such as "Jim Jim" and "Rog."
Fenty and Moten grew up on the same streets of Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Petworth.
Moten said he admired Fenty's work ethic. "He's a hustler, too," Moten said.
Last week, Moten and Fenty staffers gave the mayor a tour of Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Southeast. Fenty, who has taken control of the public school system, had demanded that Ferebee's facilities be repaired and that more services be provided to the children. Peaceoholics works with children in the neighborhood.
During the walk-through, Fenty shot a game of bumper pool with a 13-year-old boy in an after-school program. He leaned on his pool stick and said, "Remind me of the rules, Mo."
Although Moten and Fenty reconnected as adults, their lives took different paths. Fenty was valedictorian at Mackin Catholic High School. Moten was kicked out of the public Roosevelt High School.
"He was a bad little boy," said Thaddina Floyd, Moten's grandmother, who reared her grandchildren on a maid's salary.
Moten's parents were addicts, he said. And at 15, he gave up an ice cream parlor job to sell cocaine. He hid his profits at a man's house so his grandmother wouldn't catch him. But the man stole from him, Moten said, and got him in trouble with his bosses. He stopped dealing for a while. He doctored a training certificate so he could work as a sitter for patients at Washington Hospital Center. He made good money.
But when the work dried up, Moten returned to dealing. "In six months, I had $100,000," he said.
A cocaine distribution charge sent him to prison in 1991. At the federal prison in Allentown, Pa., Moten said, he earned his GED and took community college classes. His younger brother, Demetrius Starks, was killed three weeks after Moten was locked up. That did it.
After his release, Moten began working for the nonprofit Cease Fire . . . Don't Smoke the Brothers. He met Abraham in 1995, when they were organizers for the Million Man March. Abraham was first locked up at age 9 and spent his youth robbing people.
The two men went on to form Peaceoholics. To make money, they promoted go-go concerts. Although there has always been tension between them, they find the relationship works for them. "We're like night and day," Abraham said. "They call him Malcolm. They call me Martin."
Abraham said that Peaceoholics reaches children that other groups can't and that he and Moten work round-the-clock. "We're probably the only executives of nonprofits that do direct work," he said.
"Young people trust them," Fenty said. "If the young people don't trust you, they won't respond."
Moten said his staff, which includes many ex-offenders, works with about 500 youths daily.
Peaceoholics became involved in housing development because some youths need to grow up in better environments, officials said. The idea is to create cooperative housing that residents can own. The group's other plans include a taxi service run by young adults in Southeast.
But the nonprofit's ideas will face more scrutiny from the council, Moten said.
"This town is so political," Moten said. "I know someday people will be like, 'Okay. Peaceoholics can't get any more money.' I'm prepared for that."
Staff writer Dan Keating contributed to this report.