How Will Phinis Jones and Park Southern Play in the Mayoral Election?
The District may be in the thick of summer, but mayoral hopeful Muriel Bowser is enjoying her salad days. This August has turned into endorsement season for the candidate, with two major labor groups backing her in as many days.
Bowser has more than a month before she first debates her opponents, and she’s raised the gobs of money that come with the Democratic nomination. The Ward 4 councilmember has taken in more than $500,000 in two months, according to a campaign report filed Monday, giving her more than $1 million in cash reserves three months before election day.
Things are going so well, in fact, she’s got time to indulge in some outlandish campaign events. Bowser says she’ll spend part of a day soon at the Marriott Marquis working as a maid. Hotel union boss John Boardman tells LL that Bowser will even find time to wake up at the crack of dawn and send one of her maid “co-workers”’s children to school.
While August has been very good so far to Bowser, this week brought a reminder that things might not always stay that way. Even as Bowser picked up an endorsement from the local AFL-CIO labor council Monday, the District’s Office of the Attorney General put the finishing touches on a court motion that points to what could be her biggest liability as a candidate—and features a major Bowser supporter with a Forrest Gump–like ability to attach himself to topical District scandals.
Phinis Jones is a Ward 8 political operator, a longtime pal of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, and one of Bowser’s most devoted fundraisers. He’s also, along with fellow Bowser supporter Rowena Joyce Scott, at the center of the scandal over poor conditions and missing money at the Park Southern affordable housing complex, located in Ward 8 on Southern Avenue SE, one of the District’s borders with Maryland.
Bowser rival David Catania has called on her to investigate Jones’ handling of nearly $300,000 in missing rent money and Scott’s use of a $3 million District loan to improve the complex that, according to the OAG, has been “grossly mismanaged.” Catania took his criticisms a step further Wednesday, staging a press conference in front of Jones’ office. Bowser has declined to investigate Jones and Scott through her Council committee, on the grounds that it’d be a political circus, outsourcing the work instead to the Office of the Inspector General. (LL notes that the OIG is currently under interim leadership, with its new boss likely to be appointed by Bowser herself if she wins the election.)
The Office of the Attorney General hasn’t been as reluctant to go after Bowser’s supporters. In its court motion filed Monday, OAG asks the court to intervene in a potential sale of the building—presumably aimed at preventing an attempted purchase of the building by Jones for $3.7 million, a rock-bottom price for space that’s been appraised at $21 million by the District.
If Jones does manage to buy the property, he’ll have his work cut out for him. Under Scott’s management, according to District documents obtained by LL through a Freedom of Information Act request, the complex was in such bad condition that more than 10 percent of its units were too damaged to rent out. One construction report cited by the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development in a letter to Bowser estimated that even fixing the areas outside the individual apartments could cost $20 million.
Jones has some experience with the property. In March, Scott hired one of Jones’ companies to manage Park Southern, but the relationship ended abruptly when the District seized the property over unpaid debts and installed a new manager.
Jones’ attorney, Donald M. Temple, didn’t respond to LL’s request to interview Jones, but it looks like his client has decided that the best defense is a good offense. Jones’ company sued the city last month seeking at least $50,000 on the grounds that the District improperly terminated his contract when it seized Park Southern without giving him advance notice.
But the city, which distrusts Jones enough that it’s trying to stop him from taking over the complex, isn’t about to start paying his bills. DHCD spokesman Marcus A. Williams says D.C. doesn’t have to abide by a contract that Scott, not the city, agreed to.
Temple says the allegations over Jones’ alleged mishandling of Park Southern rent money, much of which he claims is in escrow until the dispute with the District is resolved, amount to “a crock of bullshit” set up by Vince Gray’s administration and Catania to hurt Bowser.
“It’s kindergarten politics,” Temple tells LL.
Indeed, Jones operates more at the Ph.D. level. After working for former Ward 8 Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark, Jones cut his teeth in the 1980s in several grabs at power: an attempted putsch of a hotel worker’s union, a failed run for the then-powerful school board. By 1987, he was already so ensconced in the District’s political class that a retail industry group paid his company $58,000 to be an “opinion maker” against an anti-littering ballot initiative. (The initiative did lose.)
Jones really came into his own, though, in the final Barry administration. Jones was rumored to be a candidate to grab the Ward 8 seat when a post-prison Barry ditched it in 1995 to become mayor. Instead, he became a trusted Barry confidante, becoming the mayor-for-life’s pick upon taking office to manage construction of a new convention center.
Unluckily for Jones, though, he was also allegedly busy working on a construction project closer to Barry’s heart: renovations on the mayor-for-life’s house. In a scandal that culminated with federal agents seizing construction records related to the mayoral manse, Jones was accused in the press of facilitating a District office landlord’s payments for Barry’s house improvements. Around the same time, the landlord received a hefty office lease from the city even as the cash-strapped District was supposed to be cutting down on rents, the Washington Post reported.
A Post investigation revealed a further alleged web of self-dealing, as Jones tried to sell a building he owned to the East of the River Community Development organization, which he chaired. The news stories about Jones killed his nomination to run the convention center construction, although prosecutors never charged Jones.
Jones hasn’t exactly shied away from scandal since then. In 1997, then-Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson accused the Department of Employment Services of giving one of Jones’ companies a $200,000 job-training grant with little oversight. Last year, a Washington Times investigation found Jones operating a house for multiple mysterious companies participating in the District’s troubled Certified Business Enterprise program, which the Associated Press reported in July has become the subject of a grand jury investigation. (A previous LL had also reported on problems with the program, though not involving Jones.)
Jones’ penchant for unflattering press didn’t dissuade former Mayor Adrian Fenty from hiring him in 2007 to woo Ward 8 residents on the abrasive mayor’s behalf. And it hasn’t turned off Park Southern’s Scott, who runs the nonprofit that owns the housing complex.
Scott says the District seizure of the property amounted to payback from Gray for her and Jones’ support for Bowser. (DHCD, on the other hand, points to the property’s deterioration and unpaid loans as the reason for the takeover.) Scott preferred Jones’ management company to Vesta, the Connecticut-based operators who took over after the District seized the property. Also a plus for Scott: The fact that Jones is an African-American who lives in the District.
“These two Caucasians fly in and out of Connecticut,” Scott says of the Park Southern’s new managers.
As for Bowser, she hasn’t turned on Jones, either. Even after the Park Southern scandal broke, he was on the host committee for a birthday fundraiser she threw late last month. The campaign won’t comment when asked if it plans to return the $20,000 it’s received from Jones-controlled companies, but its latest finance report doesn’t show any refunds to him or the firms.
And why would they? If there’s anything Jones has shown in more than three decades in District politics, it’s that he’s a survivor.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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