In the latest D.C. mayoral debate (which will rebroadcast Monday at noon), Council member David A. Catania (I-At large) accused Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) of meddling in a city takeover of a low-income housing complex to help a political supporter to profit financially.
Catania’s attack — and Bowser’s defense — of her involvement both include questionable claims. Here’s a primer on Park Southern Apartments and a breakdown of the problem areas brewing on the topic for both candidates:
What is Park Southern, and why should I care?
A powerbroker in the D.C. Democratic party long controlled the iconic affordable housing towers near the District’s southern tip. That official, Joyce Scott, oversaw the property as it fell into deep disrepair with 700 residents battling mold, water leaks and rodent infestations. Under Scott, the property also plunged more than three years behind on a city-backed mortgage; failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility bills, and $130,000 went missing from an account holding tenants’ security deposits.
During Democrats’ grueling fight for the mayoral nomination in the spring — and as Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration had begun pressuring Scott to improve management — Scott switched sides. She abandoned Gray and backed Bowser. At one point, she personally escorted scores of Park Southern tenants to polls in Bowser campaign vans. Scott’s former property manager — Phinis Jones — was also a prominent fundraiser and organizer for Bowser’s campaign at the time.
After Bowser won the primary, and Gray initiated a city takeover of Park Southern, Bowser sought a meeting between city housing officials and Scott and Jones. To try to keep the property from coming under city control, Scott and Jones were in the middle of a hastily prepared sale of the property.
Gray’s administration blocked the sale and is now attempting a court-supervised sale.
Bowser, whose committee has oversight authority of housing issues, resisted calls from Catania and Gray over the summer to hold a hearing on Park Southern. Instead, she asked the District’s Inspector General to conduct an investigation. Under a federal criminal summons, agents for the Internal Revenue Service also carted off boxes of financial documents from the building. Neither probe is expected to wrap up before Election Day.
Bowser called the meeting with city housing officials to “grease the wheels” for her supporters, Scott and Jones.
“You were trying to privilege your supporters to sell that building under below market value and use your position to grease those wheels.”
— Catania to Bowser, during Thursday’s debate, hosted by WAMU 88.5.
“Mr. Catania is wrong ... I never tried to grease any wheels or privilege anybody ... When I learned about the problems at Park Southern, I did what I always do and investigate what’s going on with people, by bringing all of the parties to the table.”
— Bowser, responding to Catania.
Catania’s claim rests on a compact timeline of about a week between three events: the date that Scott was told that she would lose control of the building; that Scott and Jones initiated a sale, and that Bowser called for a meeting with city housing officials. The confluence of events, Catania contends, could not have been a coincidence.
The attempted sale of the building that was underway would have turned over control of Park Southern to Jones for about a quarter of the building’s assessed value of roughly $20 million. Jones would have paid off the delinquent $3 million city-backed loan, but then owned a building that everyone agrees needs millions more in repairs.
Jones or companies he controls have contributed nearly $20,000 to Bowser’s campaign.
Bowser said she did not seek the meeting to help Scott or Jones, but to get up to speed on the conflict and to find a solution that ensured Park Southern remained low-income housing.
According to two members of Gray’s administration who were present at the meeting with Bowser, she initially asked general questions, then began to raise concerns about the city’s authority to take over the property.
Gray aides did not allow Scott or Jones to attend, and in internal e-mails blasted Bowser for trying to bring them.
“Please communicate to Bowser’s office that we view having Jones there creates the appearance of ethics rules violations and we strongly recommend he not be there,” Christopher Murphy, Gray’s chief of staff wrote in an e-mail.
In trying to head off the private meeting, another former Gray aide, Janene Jackson, pushed for a public hearing instead, saying it would allow city housing officials to “formally and publicly place on the record that its actions were above reproach.” It would also, she said “allow the ‘back room’ bullying to stop.”
Jackson, who was Gray’s liaison to the council, did not identify the source of that ‘bullying’ but wrote that neither Bowser, Council members Anita Bonds (D-At large), who attended the meeting, or Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who had inquired about it, wanted a hearing. “The involved CMs do not wish to hold a public hearing on the matter,” Jackson wrote.
No one at the meeting has said that Bowser directly advocated to allow the sale of Park Southern to Jones to proceed.
Rather, Bowser continued to question the city’s authority to insert its own property manager and to initiate foreclosure proceedings.
In June, Bowser’s chief of staff followed up with the District’s Attorney General, asking in an e-mail for an explanation regarding what authority the city had to move against Scott.
That doesn’t jibe with statements made since by Bowser that she quickly supported the decision by Gray and the attorney general to seek a new owner for the building.
During the debate on Thursday, Bowser said, “I think that the attorney general has the right plan. What was going to help the tenants of Park Southern is to have a responsible owner, who has the money to make the needed investments in the building.”
Catania has contended that by advocating for a hands-off approach by the city, Bowser sought to create the conditions under which a sale could have proceeded to Jones.
There’s little evidence that Gray’s administration would have allowed that to happen without a fight.
Related to the Park Southern issue, Tom Sherwood of NBC4 questioned Bowser during Thursday’s debate as to why she had not returned contributions from Jones. In addition to halting the proposed sale to Jones, District housing officials have raised questions about his accounting of how hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent during his last tenure as property manager of Park Southern.
“I don’t see any reason to return contributions when the people who are have — these are accusations that have been made against them, and none of them have been founded,” Bowser said.
Moments earlier, Bowser used a different logic when explaining why she did not hold a council oversight hearing but called for an independent investigation:
“I think there have been enough allegations of misusing funds, allegations that money wasn’t properly spent, so yes, I think the IG who has investigators and auditors, is the exact right place to go.”