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More would-be interns paying thousands to land a coveted spot
The center paid $1.7 million in rent in fiscal year 2007 to "an entity operated by a member of the board of directors," according to tax filings. In 2008, the center paid $1.5 million in such rent. Sloter referred a call from a reporter to the center.
This summer, the center opened its own dormitory near the New York Avenue Metro station in Northeast Washington. The $38 million dorm can house about 350 students and features a 500-seat auditorium, six classrooms, a student lounge, a fitness center and flat-screen televisions in each room. The project was financed chiefly with tax-exempt bonds.
The facility was built by Paradigm Construction, which was founded by Sloter. Paradigm was awarded the contract through "a transparent process of sealed bids" because it promised to complete the project for $1.1 million less than the second-lowest bidder, Cehrs said.
"Clearly, this board member did not benefit unfairly from this process. The Washington Center and ultimately its students are the true beneficiaries," Cehrs said in a statement.
Four students live in each two-bedroom apartment, cook for themselves and pay $3,540 each for 10 weeks. That housing fee includes furnishings, cleaning costs, utilities, and Internet, cable and phone service, plus the support of full-time resident assistants, Cehrs said in a statement.
"All rental properties have been rented by [the Washington Center] at market or below market rates," she said. The center's "residential housing fee is comparable in price to local Washington area high end residential facilities such as those provided by Georgetown and George Washington Universities."
Dean A. Zerbe, a former senior counsel for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who led an investigation into nonprofit groups, said contracts with board members raise "one of the biggest flags."
"How independent as a board member am I if I am getting a sweetheart deal?" Zerbe said. "Are these children's funds, in a sense, being used appropriately?"
Some colleges, including Boston University, Stanford and the University of Texas, run their own programs in Washington. Independent programs such as the Washington Center and the others allow colleges to offer their students a D.C. experience without the liability and cost of setting up their own programs, award credits without tying up campus resources and, in a few cases, continue collecting some of a student's tuition money.
Over the past 40 years, the programs have collectively placed more than 60,000 interns. Some of them participate in alumni networks that function like college alumni associations, fundraise for the programs, join Facebook groups, volunteer to mentor or take on interns of their own.
"I can't wait to get back to school and talk to everyone about it," said Farah Ardeshir, 21, a junior at Eastern Kentucky University who interned at a D.C. human rights research institute through the Washington Center. "Living in the real world, even just for two months, is critical."
Researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.