The crowded tenants’ meeting at the battered housing complex in Southeast Washington was about to begin, but first, the organization’s leader ran a towel across his bald head and eyed the woman in the last row.
The Rev. Rowena Joyce Scott needed to leave the room before they could start, he announced. His tone was polite but firm.
Heads turned. A security guard walked toward the pastor.
“I’m not gonna leave the meeting, baby,” Scott said, remaining in her seat. “Don’t you put your hands on me.”
Scott is president of the board that controls Park Southern Apartments, a subsidized housing complex that the District seized in April after alleging that the board mismanaged finances and neglected the building’s leaking roof, broken pipes and festering mold.
She also has emerged as a problem for D.C. mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who has counted Scott among her political supporters.
The District alleges that the nonprofit organization that owns Park Southern is delinquent on a $3 million city-backed loan. In addition, a lawsuit filed by tenants claims that Scott and the board corrupted in-house elections and wasted money on excessive staff salaries and unnecessary travel.
Scott has denied the accusations.
But Bowser’s decision to not hold a public hearing on Park Southern — she chairs the council committee tasked with overseeing housing matters in the city — has provided an opening for attack from council member and mayoral rival David A. Catania (I-At Large).
He has accused Bowser of helping to “grease the wheels” for Scott, who sought to buy the building. He also has called on Bowser to return roughly $20,000 in campaign contributions made by Phinis Jones, a former Park Southern property manager, and associated companies.
The controversy is another moment of high drama for the pastor, 61, who grew up in the District’s poorest ward and evolved into an influential political activist as she lived and worked at some of the city’s most dangerous addresses.
Whatever the searing issue of the moment — gun violence, warring drug gangs, tumultuous political campaigns — Scott has long gravitated to the middle of the rollicking fray.
The District is investigating why Park Southern owes the city and utility companies more than $1 million and whether $300,000 in recent rent payments were managed properly. Officials also are trying to account for tens of thousands of dollars in purportedly missing tenant security deposits.
The pastor, who has hired a lawyer, said she has done nothing wrong. “I just want to finish the court process,” she said. “I will be able to sleep at night, like I can now.”
To her loyalists, Scott is a community pillar, devoted to the city’s most vulnerable — homeless families, alcoholics, addicts and victims of domestic violence. “She feeds people. She sees to it that seniors get food delivered to their door,” said Leona Martin, 43, a leasing consultant and Park Southern resident.
Her detractors say the pastor is self-serving and incompetent, turning Park Southern into her personal fiefdom, living rent-free as she drove it on a downward spiral of dysfunction. For a time, they say, Scott took control of a third-floor social room, turning it into a church in which she held services.
“She’s rude, she’s disrespectful and she doesn’t care about anyone but herself,” said Roberta Henderson, a tenant who is a custodian at the U.S. Capitol. “She feeds off weak people.”
Scott, in an interview, was a gush of defiance as she swatted away any suggestion that she’s a malevolent force.
“Poor, black and misunderstood is what I am,” she said, sitting in Park Southern’s lobby and greeting supporters as they came and went. On her finger, she wore a diamond-encrusted ring in the shape of a cross, which she said commemorated her ordination as a pastor.
To passersby, she gave fliers questioning whether Donald Goins, president of the Park Southern Residents’ Council, earns too much money to qualify for a subsidized apartment. Goins filed the lawsuit against Scott and the board, a case scheduled for a hearing this month.
“WHO REALLY IS DONALD C. GOINS AND WHAT IS HIS REAL AGENDA?” read the flier’s headline, above “Peace and Blessings, Pastor Scott.”
Goins, for his part, described Scott as a “dictator.”
The pastor took the fliers to the tenants’ meeting, distributing them before and after Goins asked her to leave. He explained that, as the board’s president, she was a representative of the ownership and didn’t belong at the meeting.
The police who were summoned refused to eject Scott, saying she is a building resident.
At one point, a tenant asked about the questions surrounding the $300,000 in recent tenants’ rent payments.
Scott stood up and said the money was accounted for.
“I welcome the investigation!” she shouted. “I’m not going anywhere!”
In political circles, Scott is known for a robust network of allies that she can summon on Election Day, many of them from Park Southern’s 361 units in a key Ward 8 voting precinct. “If you’re running for office, she’s one of the people you need to see,” said Jacque Patterson of the Ward Eight Democrats, an influential political organization.
In 2011, when Scott was the organization’s vice president, Vincent B. Orange’s campaign for an at-large council seat paid her $1,000 after she helped him capture the Ward Eight Democrats’ endorsement. The organization later elected Scott president.
Scott also is known as a fickle ally, pledging allegiance to a candidate and then supporting the opponent. In Ward 8, Philip Pannell, a state Board of Education candidate, and Sandra Seegars, who ran for the council, said Scott dumped them after promising support.
Anita Bonds, the at-large council member, said Scott had told her this year that she was backing her, only to show up at a meeting wearing her opponent’s stickers.
“Classic Joyce,” Bonds said.
Scott’s decision to turn from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to Bowser this year, after having supported the mayor in 2010, is a core of the current controversy.
Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, said Scott had attended the mayor’s kick-off rally and a strategy meeting and was on an e-mail list that included key operatives. The mayor learned that Scott had flipped sides when he read an article about the pastor helping Bowser.
“I’ve seen the mayor angry, but I’ve never seen him this angry,” Thies said. “She betrayed him.”
Park Southern’s troubles and Scott’s support for Bowser became issues in the mayor’s race after the council member unsuccessfully sought to arrange a meeting between the pastor and District officials.
Bowser also asked the attorney general’s office to provide a legal opinion about the District taking action against Scott and Park Southern. She said she was only trying to resolve a dispute.
Scott denied that Park Southern’s troubles made her turn on Gray.
She recalled that she had long been a Gray supporter, predicting that when she met him more than 20 years ago that he would become mayor. But she said her feelings soured because of his handling of homeless issues, among other matters.
“He changed,” she said, even as she said she would’ve helped Gray if he entered the race earlier.
“Why does it all fall on me?” she asked, suggesting that she was being made a scapegoat for his defeat.
The pastor has accused the mayor of pushing for the city’s takeover of Park Southern to exact revenge, a claim the administration has denied.
“If I had delivered, what do you think would’ve happened?” she asked, allowing the question to linger.
The key to Scott’s influence is that she knows her territory, having grown up in a Southeast housing project, where her mother raised six children. Scott attended Ballou High School, dropping out after becoming pregnant with her son.
Her political awakening occurred in 1984, when a 9-year-old girl’s rape drove her to organize a meeting between 200 outraged residents and police. Scott’s photo appeared in the newspaper, TV reporters sought her out and then-Mayor Marion Barry summoned her to City Hall for a news conference.
In 1990, after federal investigators caught Barry smoking crack, Scott helped stage a rally that drew hundreds of his supporters. “This is our city, it’s a black city,” Scott said then. “And they want to take the mayor because the mayor has built it up.”
The drug violence of those years led Scott to organize marches and vigils. After shootings along 10th Place SE, she “anointed” the sidewalk, a ritual she said was intended to “spiritually cleanse” the area.
The carnage touched her personally. Her son and grandson survived bullet wounds. Another grandson was shot to death. At one point, Scott lobbied for a proposed prison in Southeast, saying it would create jobs and allow families to easily visit incarcerated relatives.
In the early 2000s, H.R. Crawford, who owned and managed subsidized apartments, hired Scott to help run Parkside Terrace, where the city placed homeless families. At night, when she walked the halls, Scott said she carried a metal baseball bat.
“Parkside was a nightmare,” Crawford recalled. “She was a steady, stable presence.”
In 2004, Scott moved to Park Southern, where she became board president and her daughter, Bonnie, became vice president. The pastor, according to the tenants’ lawsuit, dismissed the building’s manager and hired another company, which then appointed Scott resident manager. Her compensation included the rent-free apartment.
Referring to the building’s problems, Scott said she has worked to make needed repairs. But Park Southern’s financial difficulties have made that nearly impossible. Every day, she said, has been a monumental struggle.
“I’m a survivor,” the pastor said. “I’ll come through.”
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.