Mayoral candidate and D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) appeared outside the offices of a key supporter of Democratic rival Muriel Bowser Wednesday. He called on Bowser to return $20,000 in donations connected to the ally. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

Mayoral candidate David A. Catania called on rival Muriel Bowser to return more than $20,000 in campaign donations Wednesday, amping up his criticism of a Bowser supporter who has sought to buy a troubled Southeast Washington apartment complex in a deal that city officials deem questionable.

Catania summoned reporters to a sidewalk across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE from a large Bowser campaign sign and the offices of Capitol Services Management, a firm owned by Bowser ally Phinis Jones.

There, Catania, an independent candidate, called on Bowser, a fellow D.C. Council member and the Democratic nominee, to return campaign donations linked to Jones and his companies. He also reiterated demands for a legislative hearing on the controversy surrounding the dilapidated Park Southern Apartments, home to 700 low-income residents.

“She needs to explain her actions to the citizens of this city, and she needs to once and for all divest herself and this city of the pay-to-play politics which has defined it for a very long time,” Catania, an at-large council member, said to a small gathering of reporters.

Bowser’s campaign gave no indication that it would refund any donations. Spokesman Joaquin McPeek called Catania’s appearance at Jones’s office a “stunt” that “reeks of desperation and is a sign of a campaign in panic mode.” He took note of campaign finance filings this week that showed Catania lagging behind Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the council, in fundraising.

“Unlike Mr. Catania, [council member] Bowser has completely removed mayoral politics from the Park Southern issue, and instead, taken the appropriate measures to refer this to the independent Inspector General,” McPeek said in a statement.

Catania’s calls came two days after the District’s attorney general asked a court to intervene and oversee the sale of the building from a nonprofit corporation controlled by another Bowser ally, the Rev. Rowena Joyce Scott. The nonprofit has sought to sell the building to Jones’s firm, a transaction that city attorneys have characterized as a sweetheart deal for less than half the property’s market value.

On Wednesday, District officials described their efforts to rein in Scott and halt the building’s slide into insolvency and disrepair. The proposed sale to Jones was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and led to the city’s foreclosure on a $3 million loan that is $700,000 in arrears, said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel in the attorney general’s office.

“We felt we had no choice,” Levinson-Waldman said.

Bowser’s campaign made its first comment Wednesday on the city’s court action, with McPeek saying Bowser supported efforts to force a sale “to a responsible owner willing to ensure no displacement of tenants and prepared to preserve affordability.”

Levinson-Waldman said Jones’s firm is free to pursue a purchase of the property regardless of whether the court decides to oversee the sale, but Jones’s attorney said Jones may no longer be interested.

Attorney Donald Temple said Jones’s interest in buying Park Southern “is being rethought” in light of the political scrutiny. “Why do something to help people when the government is more interested in the politics and hurting you?” he asked.

Temple called Catania’s criticism of the deal “primitive and uninformed” and said Catania “should not be stepping into the role of the court in what is a legal dispute.” Jones’s firm has sued the District, seeking at least $50,000 in damages for the cancellation of its management contract after the city foreclosed in May.

Although Catania made his appearance outside Jones’s office, his criticism was focused primarily on Bowser. He noted that Bowser’s office tried to set up a meeting between Jones and a key housing official on the day Scott and Jones moved to buy the building and two days before the city’s deadline to foreclose on the Park Southern loan.

“There can be only one explanation, and that is Muriel Bowser using the color of her office to facilitate the sale to her two biggest political supporters in this community . . . in complete disregard for the wishes or the interests of the tenants,” he said. “She cannot escape this by simply referring it to the inspector general. She needs to answer these questions herself.”

Bowser, in a radio interview last month, denied acting improperly in trying to arrange the meeting. “I did what I do with all problems that come to me, whether they be housing or some other constituent issue, and that is to call all the people to the table,” she said.