A political feud between a D.C. Council member and the founders of a grass-roots nonprofit youth outreach group has led to questions about the member’s involvement in an audit being conducted by the D.C. auditor, and in the neutrality of the independent Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Times.
The outreach group, Peaceoholics, says Ward 7 council member Yvette Alexander is attempting to influence an audit she sought of the group, and says the Trust violated its contract with the group in pursuit of “other” objectives that “are seemingly political in nature,” the documents state.
The hostility between Ms. Alexander, a Democrat and staunch supporter of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, and Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten, a longtime friend of former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, escalated during the rancorous 2010 mayoral campaign, which Mr. Fenty lost amid charges of cronyism and political arrogance.
Mr. Moten and Peaceoholics already had emerged as symbols of the Fenty administration, which became embroiled with the group in a scandal over a donated firetruck after approving more than $10 million in city funds for its gang intervention and youth rehabilitation efforts.
On Aug. 19, in the heat of the election, Ms. Alexander made a formal request of D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols to audit Peaceoholics, which in recent years has laid off the majority of its staff and scaled back its operations. Mr. Moten, who had resigned from day-to-day operations of Peaceoholics but remained a volunteer and a board member, was campaigning vigorously for Mr. Fenty at the time, also as a volunteer.
Ms. Alexander’s letter states that she was particularly interested in whether Mr. Moten was a Peaceoholics employee or engaged in a leadership position. She asked Ms. Nichols to determine whether the group had met its tax obligations and financial disclosure requirements, and whether it had properly used government funds or violated federal prohibitions on engagement by nonprofits in political activities.
On Aug. 31, the Trust, a key partner with public schools, city agencies and other nonprofits in efforts to improve the lives of D.C. youths, and one of Peaceoholics’ last remaining sources of funding, informed Peaceoholics co-founder Jauhar Abraham that it was suspending its grants pending the outcome of the audit. In her letter to Mr. Abraham, Trust President and CEO Ellen London requested payroll and benefits documentation and said the group could continue to provide services but no further payments would be processed.
Mr. Abraham said the suspension of funds violates Peaceoholics’ contract with the Trust and hampers the group from doing work that prevents violence in troubled parts of the city. He pointed to the contract, which states that the Trust may suspend payments based on audit results and performance, and said the Trust acted prematurely in cutting off the group’s funding at the start of the audit.
Letters and emails reviewed by The Times show the Trust receiving documentation from Peaceoholics and issuing findings and requests for further information, which the group says it has provided. On Oct. 13, the Trust’s board of directors upheld the suspension of funding, “pending the outcome of the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor investigation.”
Mr. Abraham said that in February an analyst for the D.C. auditor told him the audit was nearly completed, and would be released soon to Peaceoholics so the group could respond to the findings.
But on March 7, when he encountered Ms. Alexander at a basketball game, Mr. Abraham said he became concerned about political meddling. “She told me she had a draft copy of the audit and was reviewing it,” Mr. Abraham said. “She told me, ‘I’m after you.’ “
Ms. Alexander did not respond to calls and written questions.
Sources familiar with the progress of the audit say there have been unexpected delays and that it has been expanded to include bank records obtained by subpoena. Those sources also say Ms. Alexander and other council members’ staffs have been briefed about the status of the audit, but no concrete information has been shared.
Mr. Abraham said a representative of his group made a Freedom of Information Act request on March 10 to the Gray administration for correspondence between the D.C. auditor’s office and Ms. Alexander, but the group has received no documents.
Meantime, Peaceoholics has retained as an attorney Rodney C. Mitchell, former executive director in the D.C. Office on Ex-Offender Affairs, to pursue the group’s contract dispute with the Trust. In a Feb. 20 letter, Mr. Mitchell wrote to Ms. London that the Trust has “overreached and abused its power,” and accused the agency of acting in bad faith. His letter states that Peaceoholics has cooperated with the Trust’s “litany of requests” and threatens to sue if the Trust is not interested in mediating the matter.
Mr. Abraham said the Trust owes Peaceoholics more than $60,000 for youth outreach and intervention work it did from July to October last year. “We’re a nonprofit,” said Mr. Abraham, whose group has shrunk from 77 employees to eight in recent years, and who took a salary of $13,000 last year. “We can’t just tap into that kind of money to keep operating.”
In an interview last week, Ms. London said nonprofit agencies across the city are under scrutiny as the District struggles with a sizable budget deficit. “Things are different now,” she said. “Our District funding has been cut from $18 million to $4.5 million in the past three years. And our board will not address this suspension of funding until the audit is complete.”
But a Feb. 17 email to a Peaceoholics employee from Winifred Carson-Smith, chairwoman of the Trust’s board of directors, says the board defers to Ms. London on funding issues. “We are not inclined to override her decisions associated with funding organizations,” Ms. Carson-Smith wrote.
Other email exchanges suggest the matter could be headed to court. On April 23, Tonya Robinson, a Trust attorney, informed Peaceoholics’ attorney that the ongoing audit of Peaceoholics continues to raise “financial and management concerns for the Trust.”
On April 26, Mr. Mitchell replied, “It is unfortunate, yet clear, that the Trust lacks basic respect for this grass-roots organization and the critical services they provide in our most troubled neighborhoods.”
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