From a corner table at the IHOP on Alabama Avenue SE, Rev. Rowena Joyce Scott pleads her case—or some of it anyway.
The former board president of the nonprofit Park Southern Neighborhood Corp., which owned and managed the Park Southern apartments in Southeast, was indicted on federal charges last week. The 13-page document outlines a scheme to line her pockets with money from the nonprofit from 2010 to 2014 while the apartment building for low- income residents fell further into disrepair.
The indictment describes credit card fraud, wire fraud, unfiled income tax returns, and filing false tax returns—and it’s just the latest development in a saga that’s dragged on since at least the 2014 mayoral race.
Between sips of hazelnut-flavored coffee and bites of double-stack pancakes, Scott denies that she willfully violated any laws. She claims that whatever discrepancies the feds found in her financial records are due to bookkeeping errors and poor advice from attorneys.
Scott, 66, also reiterates her belief that this whole mess is the culmination of a “political hit” from Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray. Scott made a similar accusation during the 2014 mayoral primary after she flipped from supporting then-Mayor Gray to supporting Mayor Muriel Bowser, who represented Ward 4 on the Council at the time.
Scott says Gray promised to “get me” after she defected and that shortly after he lost the Democratic primary, his Department of Housing and Community Development raided files and computers from the nonprofit’s office. She later filed a lawsuit alleging the raid illegally interfered with the nonprofit’s business, which was dismissed.
Gray declined to comment on Scott’s ongoing case and has previously denied her accusations. The nonprofit was also delinquent on a city-backed loan and utility bills and the building was in a general state of disrepair when DHCD conducted its raid and took control of the property in 2014. The IRS also seized financial records that year.
Hearing Scott’s claim of retaliation, Gray’s former campaign manager, Chuck Thies, responds: “Tell that to a jury. Did the dog eat her taxes?”
Scott says she was offered a plea deal on the accusations in the indictment but turned it down.
“I trust and believe in God, and I trust and believe that I have not with any wilful intent done anything wrong to hurt that property,” Scott says. “I’ve done much more to help it. I will agree that we may not have done everything right. Nobody does.”
According to the indictment, between February and May of 2014, Scott padded her personal bank accounts with at least 40 payments from the nonprofit and at least 50 checks made out to herself; she made more than 60 cash withdrawals from bank tellers and more than 100 ATM visits.
Scott, the former head of the Ward 8 Democrats, flatly denies that any money moved from the nonprofit to her own account and invites the feds to “prove it.” But, she says, she used the cash from the ATM withdrawals to pay homeless people to evict residents.
The indictment also lists 46 credit card charges during that same timeframe from businesses such as ChurchPlaza, the Chesapeake Beach Resort & Spa, Nordstrom Rack, the Shoe Parlor, Modern Wigs and Beauty Supply, and Traders Seafood Steak & Ale, among others.
Asked about the nearly $2,000 in charges at the resort and spa, Scott acknowledges that she and at least one other person went on a retreat “to get away from the negativity and to regroup.”
“You’re in a very negative environment and you’re steadily trying to change it, and you’re trying to weed out some of the negativity,” Scott says. She talks about being woken up at 2 a.m. by yelling and domestic disputes as well as some of the alleged drug dealing that went on at the apartment complex.
“You had to be strong and be unafraid,” she says. “So that’s what people go on retreats for—to recuperate, back up, and see how we can go about this a little bit better.”
As for some of the other charges? The $4,790 to ChurchPlaza paid for 100 chairs that are still on site, she claims. And the $7.39 at the wig store purchased “little hats” for a children’s program.
She doesn’t have an explanation for the $361.81 at Nordstrom Rack and the $342.38 at the Shoe Parlor.
Instead she shows LL a photo album with pictures of parties, events, and even a poolside baptism. Scott says she has paid for lunches for senior residents while they played bingo and would put on the occasional fashion show and parties, suggesting that those payments went toward clothes for those who could not afford it.
“Two young men in the building never had hard shoes,” Scott says of one formal party she hosted. “We were tryin’ to turn them around, and we rented their tuxes and their hard shoes. We did that for them.”
And then there’s the separate issue of her taxes. According to the indictment, Scott gave her bookkeeper “false and fraudulent” justifications for some transactions, and no justification for others. As a result, the nonprofit “consistently underreported” Scott’s annual pay to the IRS.
Scott also underreported her annual income on her personal taxes, according to the indictment, and in some years she didn’t file a return at all.
Scott claims the discrepancy in the nonprofit’s taxes has to do with confusion over whether her salary included the amount of free rent she enjoyed while living at Park Southern.
“I’ll tell you what I’m guilty of: trusting people,” she says. She refuses to answer any questions about her personal taxes, and at one point questioned whether she should have asked her attorney before meeting with a reporter. In just one example from the indictment, Scott claimed to have earned $37,115 in 2011, and in fact earned at least $100,000 in taxable income, according to the indictment.
The man who filed her taxes, Gaster Hunter, acknowledges that he did in fact make an error, but filed an amended correction.
“I had another account I was working on and got the 990s confused,” he tells LL. “But I turned the corrected ones into the IRS, so they are aware of the error that was made.”
Hunter, who is retired, says that he spoke with the IRS last year when they showed him financial information that he had no knowledge of. “I can only report what I have,” he says. “All the numbers I had reported are reflected in the documents. The IRS has numbers I was not privy to.”
Hunter was “floored” when LL told him Scott had been indicted, adding that she is ultimately a good person with an unconventional management style.
“As a minister, she’d say ‘God’s got this,’ and I’d say ‘Yeah, but God gave us common sense. There are rules and laws,’” he says.
The federal indictment is only Scott’s most recent legal trouble. In November 2017, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered her to repay more than $240,000 that she’d received from the nonprofit in salary and free rent. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine joined the civil case after the Park Southern Residents’ Council sued Scott and the nonprofit.
Judge John M. Mott ruled that Scott violated the District’s nonprofit laws by drawing an excessive salary as the organization fell behind on a $3 million city-backed loan and as the 360-unit apartment building fell into disrepair. Mice, roaches, and bedbugs infested the building, which had faulty water heaters, broken locks, and moldy walls and ceilings, according to court records and news reports.
Scott is appealing the judge’s ruling, arguing in court documents that she was denied a jury trial and was entitled to payment for work she did as the property’s manager.
“The $240,000 judgment does not take into account that she worked and because she worked, she was entitled to a rent free apartment,” Scott’s attorney Johnny Barnes says.
A court date for the appeal is set for next week. No date has been set for her to appear in court on the indictment.