Page 2 of 5   <       >

'It doesn't seem right'

When Leshelle Hicks came to Joseph's House, a D.C. hospice for people with HIV/AIDS and other terminal illnesses, her health was failing. Today, she believes the program saved her life.

The story of Miracle Hands shows how start-up nonprofit groups that pledged to help the sick in a city with the nation's highest AIDS rate were able to draw millions from a D.C. agency that time and again failed to ensure its money was well spent. From 2004 to 2008, the HIV/AIDS Administration -- entrusted with spending the city's AIDS dollars -- paid more than $25 million to groups marked by financial problems or questions about the quality of care and services, including Miracle Hands.

Miracle Hands officials defend their programs, saying they are properly staffed and equipped and especially needed in the District's poorest neighborhoods.

From its headquarters in a 14,000-square-foot warehouse on Queens Chapel Road NE and rental houses throughout the city, Miracle Hands said it has provided support groups, housing and a day treatment center offering showers, meals and therapy. Group officials said that they offer support to housing clients but that the services are optional.

Miracle Hands' executive director is 52-year-old Cornell Jones, who once ran a massive cocaine ring on the streets of Northeast. Arrested in the 1980s, he served time in prison and emerged to start Miracle Hands in the late 1990s to help ex-offenders, the homeless and troubled children. He had business ventures as well: Next door to Miracle Hands, Jones opened a popular nightclub called D.C. Tunnel.

"This deadly disease . . . is not a gay, white Dupont Circle disease anymore. . . . The [city] didn't have a clue how to attack that population," Jones said. "We came in with some new ideas . . . and try to give these clients everything that they need."

Jones and Rowe said they have a long-standing professional relationship. Like Jones, Rowe had overcome a drug past, serving time in prison for heroin and cocaine charges before building a career focused on people with AIDS.

One Miracle Hands supervisor said Rowe visited frequently and would help Jones with paperwork.

"She did a lot of work for Miracle Hands," supervisor James Lynch-Bey said.

But Jones said Rowe did not favor his group, noting that Miracle Hands applied for funding through a competitive process. City officials, however, said department heads such as Rowe supervise the selection process, weigh in on how grants are awarded and monitor the money.

Rowe also had a personal connection to Miracle Hands: Three of her family members and a friend were hired by Jones.

Rowe, 50, said she never benefited personally from Miracle Hands and did not provide favored treatment to any group. She said she did the best she could under difficult circumstances, taking over a housing department that funded and monitored many struggling nonprofit groups.

"It was a mess," she said. "Everybody said that Debra Rowe was the one that can fix it."

<       2              >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company