Peace at Any Cost?
LL has the perfect plan to steer some District funds his way. First, he’ll team up with a rising politician poised to become mayor. Then, he’ll offer a service no one could say no to—anti-violence work, probably. If anyone starts asking questions about paperwork, he’ll just tell the mayor’s pals to push the money through anyway.
LL would never put his scheme into action (too much respect for you, the taxpayer). Besides, it’s not even an original idea: The whole plan is laid out in a new stash of Metropolitan Police Department emails about gang intervention group Peaceoholics.
The emails come courtesy of the Fraternal Order of Police, which has been fighting for nearly three years to obtain department messages about the Peaceoholics through Freedom of Information Act requests. In the emails, top MPD officials fret that the organization, led by Ron Moten and Jauhar Abraham, was causing more harm than good in the city. Just as seriously, they worried that Peaceoholics couldn’t substantiate its activities with paperwork. Despite their concerns, though, MPD gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Peaceoholics as late as 2010.
Those concerns about the group’s ability—or lack thereof—to document its activities would turn out to be prescient. In June, D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan sued the Peaceoholics, alleging that the group had underplayed how much Moten and Abraham were paid in salary on tax forms. If the Children’s Youth Investment Trust Corporation had known Moten and Abraham were receiving tens of thousands dollars more than they reported, Nathan says, the organization would never have received money—or have been able to allegedly blow that money on luxury SUVs. Moten and Abraham are fighting the case, and Moten says the group’s current money woes are due to the D.C. government cutting it off out of spite after the 2010 election.
Adrian Fenty, Peaceoholics’ patron, has been out of the Wilson Building for nearly three years. Moten and Abraham are facing the civil lawsuit and whatever else comes from allegedly filing false tax forms. With Mayor Vince Gray facing a potential federal indictment, grant cronyism as a city’s biggest scandal seems quaint.
Here’s one reason for the lack of news stemming from District grants lately: The city clamped down. In 2009, the D.C. Council eliminated earmarks after a scandal over grants steered by Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. In 2011, the Council tried to reform the Children’s Youth Investment Trust Corp. after former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. promised to pay back grant money he had stolen by funneling it through the trust.
But with a $417 million budget surplus and an election year coming up, District politicians are showing a renewed interest in grants. In the latest legislative session, mayoral hopeful and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser tried to rededicate housing money into refunding the Neighborhood Investment Fund—a revitalization program derided as an anything-goes earmark fund. During the Fenty administration, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute described the fund’s other use: “just to plug holes in the mayor’s budget.”
Gray, meanwhile, has proposed a “One City Fund” to hand out $15 million in grants. Proponents of the fund, which will be administered by a nonprofit, say it will be insulated from pressure. (LL will point out that CYITC was supposed to be independent, too.) In his February State of the District address, Gray said the corruption he had sought to end by discontinuing earmarks while chairing the Council could be avoided with his new fund.
“We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Gray said.
The new Peaceoholics emails, then, come at just the right moment for the District. They’re a timely reminder for grant-happy politicians that the funds, however well-intentioned, don’t always end being spent how they’re supposed to be.
The emails show that some MPD officers had concerns about Peaceoholics years before the District cut off much of the group’s funding in 2010—a decision Moten blames on politics. In a 2009 email to Assistant Chief Diane Groomes, an MPD employee complained that Moten couldn’t provide reports proving how effective his programs were. “They are required to document their actions and results,” Groomes wrote back. “I would not support them further.”
In one extended email exchange from 2008, MPD employees discussed how Peaceoholics hadn’t produced paperwork that would justify receiving more of a $100,000 payment from the department. “I assume that means that the last bits of funds are being withheld?” wrote an employee for the city administrator’s office—only to discover that someone else in his office had already written the check.
Despite all that, Fenty and his aides put a priority on paying Peaceoholics. Clinton LeSueur, an employee in Fenty’s neighborhood services division, got involved in the payment of a May 2008 grant. MPD estimated that it would take two weeks to cut the check once the department got an invoice it needed from Peaceoholics, but under pressure from LeSueur, they were able to turn the process around in a single day. “Funds transferred???” LeSueur wrote one afternoon to a group of city employees. 46 minutes later: “Has funds transferred????”
At least one MPD official tried to distance the department from the gang violence group. In August 2009, City Administrator Neil Albert and Attorney General Peter Nickles told agencies to make of list of their grant recipients. Terry Ryan, the department’s general counsel, asked if MPD was still giving money to Peaceoholics.
Leeann Turner, MPD’s Director of the Office of Fiscal Accountability, said she wouldn’t provide information about Peaceoholics or another violence-prevention group, Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT).
“Dude—I’m definitely not sending over ROOT and Peaceoholics,” Turner wrote to Marvin Johnson, an employee in MPD’s grants department. A spokeswoman for MPD declined to comment due to ongoing litigation.
One theme that comes through frequently in the emails: MPD officers worried that Peaceoholics events would cause violence, not deter it. LL couldn’t find much evidence that the anxiety was justified, though. Moten says MPD’s concerns about violence were really about the unfairly negative reputation go-go music has in D.C.
That’s about as far as LL got with the Peaceoholics co-founder, though. Instead, Moten accused LL of dredging up old news out of racism. “This ain’t no different from what’s going on in Florida and around the country,” Moten tells LL, referring to the Trayvon Martin case.
Abraham didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The emails also show MPD was concerned by the group’s support for Barry Harrison, a Peaceoholics employee who had been accused of sexually assaulting a Spingarn High School student on April 14, 2009.
Harrison’s case prompted MPD to bar certain Peaceoholics employees from schools, which prompted Moten to send an email to Fenty complaining that keeping the Peaceoholics out of D.C. schools put students at risk of gang violence.
Even after Harrison was convicted in September 2009 of sexual assault, Moten told the Washington Post Harrison had been mistreated because of his previous conviction. “We don’t feel it was the right verdict,” Moten was quoted saying in an article that was sent to Groomes.
“Wow,” MPD Commander Melvin Scott emailed Groomes in September 2009. “See Moten is still sticking by him.”
“[U]nacceptable for him to do so,” Groomes wrote back.
According to their emails, MPD brass were fed up with Moten and his group. But an election was coming in 2010, and Moten and his supporters were valuable to the mayor. On April 9, 2010, three days after the Post ran a story about Peaceoholics laying off around 50 employees because of decreasing grants, MPD started a process that would set aside $500,000 for the group in exchange for help readjusting juvenile offenders from the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services into the community.
MPD gave Peaceoholics at least $99,212 from the re-entry grant, with one payment classified as “very important” according to department records. It’s less clear where all that money went—eight months later, in December 2010, Moten, Peaceoholics, and Abraham were sued for $28,160.56 in unpaid credit card bills.
Today, the group appears to still be in a rough financial situation, which Moten blames on a political witch hunt after Gray’s election. That suggests D.C. won’t be able to recover the more than $500,000 the District is suing for, even if the attorney general wins in court.
From 2005 to 2010, Peaceoholics received about $10 million in loans and grants from the District government. A 2011 report from the D.C. Auditor on the group would echo many of the concerns raised at MPD—that, despite making a “significant contribution” to the city, Peaceoholics also didn’t have the controls to make sure the District’s money was going where it was meant to.
“Despite the significant contribution that Peaceoholics made to the District of Columbia, we found that grant funding entities did not provide Peaceoholics with the necessary monitoring and support that the organization needed,” the audit found.
But there was at least one grant they weren’t able to get—$1,800 in leftover money from Crime Solvers, a group that publicizes unsolved crimes in the media. In 2008, an MPD employee proposed giving the money to a magazine run by Moten.
MPD’s Turner wasn’t having it and asked to know why the money was being “targeted” to Moten, writing, "We’ve given him quite a bit of money."
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6925.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Due to a reporting error, the article originally misidentified the group that goes by the acronym ROOT. It stands for Reaching Out to Others Together, not Reaching Out to Provide Enlightenment, the name of a separate group with ties to Peaceoholics.