By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; B03
Ronald L. Moten, the co-founder of Peaceoholics, was ready for battle when he showed up last month at a Democratic mayoral candidates forum and straw poll in Ward 8 to help friend Adrian M. Fenty win a second term.
Wearing green-and-white fatigues, Moten brought several dozen teenagers and young adults to cast their ballots for Fenty, trying to help the mayor stay competitive in a part of the city where polls show he is unpopular.
Almost two decades after Moten was jailed for selling crack in Petworth, the community activist and self-described "brawler" is emerging as an influential force in the race between Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.
Frustrated by Gray's attacks on Fenty and concerned that a Gray victory would dry up funding for violence-prevention programs he credits with reducing homicides, Moten said he will use the sales skills he learned on the streets to put the mayor over the top in the September primary.
"I haven't even gotten started yet," said Moten, 40. "Adrian has helped a lot of people in the streets. People just don't know about it yet. I'm going to help change that."
In recent weeks, Moten has created a Web site to spread information about Gray's record, fueled newspaper articles on the illegal fence at Gray's home in Hillcrest and helped Fenty reach out to African Americans through radio ads featuring hip-hop artists. Now, Moten is gearing up to mobilize thousands on Fenty's behalf, confident he can drive up African American turnout enough to dilute Gray's expected advantage.
Privately, some Fenty advisers said they are nervous that Moten's efforts could backfire, but the mayor said in an interview that he is "honored" to have the support, calling him a "friend" and a "great Washingtonian."
Although Moten stepped down as chief operating officer of Peaceoholics in the fall, Gray questions whether his campaigning could endanger the group's tax-exempt status. "I think it's reprehensible," Gray said. "Ron Moten is someone who started out running what I thought was a reputable nonprofit organization, and what he has done is draw his 501 (c)(3) very much into politics."
Moten, who serves on Peaceoholics' board but doesn't draw a paycheck, said Gray "is scared" of him. "I think he is cutting it close with a lot of the things he does," said Moten, noting that the illegal fence was installed by a businessman with city contracts. "I know [Gray], and I know his history."
But political activism often is a double-edged sword, and Moten's work for the mayor is reigniting questions about how Peaceoholics flourished under Fenty's administration.
"This comes down to self-interest for him," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), a Gray supporter. "This is his bread and butter, so this is about survival for him."Funding
Before Fenty took office in 2007, Peaceoholics was an upstart group that relied on sporadic government grants and donations and mediated disputes between rival or warring city youths and gangs.
Since then, the organization has collected millions in city grants and contracts, and the Fenty administration has turned to it repeatedly to help fight crime and provide city services. Peaceoholics operates prisoner-reentry programs for the District, oversees some police-sponsored mediation sessions and assigns mentors to some schools.
Peaceoholics has received city funds from numerous agencies over the years, including the police and Human Services departments, but it's unclear exactly how much money the organization has drawn because not all city records are available and the group has not filed its 2009 990 form with the Internal Revenue Service.
However, District financial records show that Peaceoholics, generally well respected by many youth advocates, received at least $277,000 from city agencies in fiscal 2006, when Fenty was running for mayor. By 2008, that tally had risen to at least $1.5 million in payments for services or contracts, some of which were not competitively bid, according to the records.
Last year, Peaceoholics received at least $5.1 million from the city, including $4.4 million to build a group home for at-risk youths in Southeast Washington. In addition, the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., largely funded with city money distributed by a board appointed by the mayor, has given the nonprofit group $3.6 million in contracts since 2005, including $1.5 million last year, records show. The Justice Grants Administration, another quasi-city agency, awarded it $500,000 in October to help run prisoner reentry programs.
And as more money flowed to Peaceoholics from the city, Moten received pay raises. His salary increased from $43,930 in 2005 to $99,330 in 2008, according to public tax filings. Peaceoholics co-founder Jauhar Abraham made $111,000 in 2008. Moten and Abraham said they made less than the heads of other local nonprofits.
Fenty said the money has been spent well because Peaceoholics is "effective." But others said neither the city nor Peaceoholics has fully accounted for how the funds were spent or whether the investment has led to less crime.
"I have never seen any tangible or quantifiable results from them, and I haven't talked to anyone in the department who has," said Kristopher Baumann, a Gray supporter who heads the local Fraternal Order of Police.
By its nature, Moten said, violence-prevention work is gritty, centered on knowing who the potential troublemakers are and how to smooth over "beefs" that can lead to shootings and homicides. According to documents supplied by Peaceoholics, the group negotiated 29 "cease-fire agreements" and "monitored" 41 neighborhood "feuds" from October 2008 to May 2009.
"Most people think it's just putting people into a room, squashing a beef through mediation," Moten said. "Well, if it took people years to get into that mentality, it's not going to be resolved in one meeting."Organization's roots
Moten said he and Abraham were especially qualified to start such a service in the District.
Largely raised by his grandparents because his parents were addicts, Moten worked two jobs from a young age. While working at a now-closed Swensen's ice cream shop on Wisconsin Avenue at 15, Moten met a drug dealer with "gold all over his body" who owned a BMW.
"I couldn't get none of that, and I saw an opportunity," said Moten, who persuaded the dealer to take him on as underling. "I was the first young guy in the neighborhood with cocaine."
By 1991, at 21, Moten was in federal prison, serving a four-year sentence for drug dealing. In prison, he earned a GED but also lost his brother in the District to the violence fueled by the crack trade. "All of my best friends got killed, so I knew I wanted to change," Moten said. "When I came home, I went straight to working."
In 2004, Moten and Abraham formed Peaceoholics, and the organization quickly caught the attention of elected officials. Although they first met in middle school, Moten said he reconnected with Fenty later that year when the mayor represented Ward 4 on the D.C. Council. "It's always about work; it's not social, " Moten said of his friendship with Fenty.
But Tyrone Parker, executive director of the Alliance of Concerned Men, a nonprofit specializing in violence prevention, said Fenty has become Peaceoholics' "rainmaker."
"The city gives them almost everything carte blanche," Parker said. "Other organizations find it extraordinarily difficult to maintain the same relationship."
Still, Parker said, Peaceoholics does a "good job," a sentiment echoed by child advocate Susie Cambria. "I think they save lives," said Cambria, a public policy consultant who used to work for D.C. Action for Children. "Peaceoholics really doesn't do a fabulous job collecting data, but we all think if they did, we could put to rest this question of whether they do good work."
Gray eliminated council earmarks last year and sought to limit funding for Peaceoholics in the 2010 budget, which Abraham and Moten said led the nonprofit to slash its staff from 70 to 20. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he blocked a Fenty-backed $750,000 grant for the organization, saying that it needed to be competitively bid.
Moten and Abraham said the council's actions stem from their offering last year to help try to break a standoff between the chairman and the mayor over whether some Nationals tickets were Fenty's or the council's to distribute. Moten and Abraham said Gray told them that they had to choose a side. They said they wouldn't, and "everything we were doing got held up," Abraham said.
Gray denies the allegation. But the tense relationship persists, and Moten said his support of Fenty is about a lot more than city money.
"I don't care about survival, because Ron Moten is going to make it," he said. "I'm an entrepreneur. I am going to make it."