There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
To those who know him personally, Cornell Jones is a loyal friend and family member, a businessman, and a champion of ex-offenders who extends his generosity quietly and often privately.
To the government, Jones is a former drug kingpin who evaded $1.7 million in taxes by concealing income from real estate transactions and who misused government funds, dealing in cash to avoid detection.
Jones has pleaded guilty to one count of tax evasion and admitted numerous additional counts. He awaits sentencing of up to 36 months in prison and five years supervised release. His plea also requires him to pay full restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.
On its face, Jones’ is an open-and-shut case of hiding income and ripping off the IRS. But there are less obvious aspects related to an infamous strip club, where everything from cash handoffs between developers and politicians to shootings and stabbings have occurred over the last five years. A federal judge has insinuated that the government afforded Jones a lenient plea offer. That judge has forced the government to disclose a grand jury investigation that originally did not even involve Jones. In the process, politically connected parties have remained unscathed, and the competence of the U.S. Attorney’s Office has come into question.
After a decade in prison for drug trafficking, Jones came home in 1995 without a high school diploma or any work experience. He worked as a janitor, founded a demolition company, and devoted himself to rehabilitating ex-offenders, particularly those with HIV/AIDS. In 1998, he founded the nonprofit Miracle Hands to provide services to troubled youth and homeless people, and to teach programs to inmates at D.C. Jail.
Good deeds aside, real estate is Jones’ stock and trade. In 2002, he became managing member of W.F.J. LLC, a company that his father founded. That April, the company purchased distressed properties on Queens Chapel Road in an industrial sliver of Northeast for $1.4 million, and Jones renovated them with his own money. He operated the D.C. Tunnel and Club Envy nightclubs at one property for a time, then after leasing the space for several years, sold it for $2.9 million in 2010. He leased another property from 2009 through 2013.
Meanwhile, Miracle Hands paid rent to W.F.J. and a salary to Jones, as it began renovations for a job training center for returning citizens with HIV/AIDS. Jerry Brown, former deputy director of the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, says that Jones’ efforts on behalf of released inmates “likely saved many lives.”
It was during this time that Jones encountered a pair of businessmen who would alter his future.
Keith Forney is a developer who has contributed to District politicians including Adrian Fenty, Harry Thomas Jr., Marion Barry Jr., and Vincent Gray. James “Tru” Redding has owned construction companies in Maryland that specialize in painting, drywall, and interior finishing. In 2009, W.F.J. agreed to sell two Queens Chapel Road properties to a company Redding and Forney had formed called Stadium Group. At the same time, Jones entered into a consulting agreement with the group for “services previously rendered” that would pay him $24,000 a month for 120 months—a total of $2.8 million. Those services consisted of arranging for a liquor license transfer and preparing the property for conversion to a nightclub. In 2010, W.F.J. sold the property to Stadium Group for $2.7 million and soon, the group launched the Stadium Club, featuring strippers, expensive steaks, and private entertainment rooms.
Jones treated W.F.J. as his personal piggy bank, meticulously depositing funds intended for him into its account, then withdrawing more than $1 million in cash from 2009 through 2013, prosecutors contend. He wrote himself checks and purchased cashier’s checks for an additional $390,000 during that time.
Letters to the court portray Jones as a humble man, always lending a helping hand, but he also is known to travel, gamble, and live well. People who know him say he often held court at the Stadium Club, buying drinks for associates and relishing the perception of a silent owner. Jones personally “stayed off paper,” relying on W.F.J. debit cards to pay for hotels, airline tickets, rental cars, gas, restaurants, and groceries. He made mortgage payments in the name of his wife on a residence in Chevy Chase and deposited funds into her bank account for “maintenance and support.” He kept bank accounts with nominal balances in his own name, drove cars leased by an associate whom he reimbursed, delivering her checks labeled “cleaning service.”
From 2008 to 2013, Jones received roughly $4.8 million in taxable income but did not file taxes. W.F.J. has never filed a tax return, prosecutors say, and in all, Jones owes the IRS $1,759,953. Miracle Hands, which received tax-exempt status in 2002, did not file nonprofit tax returns for 2009 through 2011, either. Following articles by this author in the Washington Times in 2011, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan sued Jones and Miracle Hands in Superior Court and alleged diversion of $330,000 in government funds intended for a job training center that instead became the Stadium Club. Jones claimed he used the funds to provide services to returning citizens at another property, but in 2014, a jury held him liable nonetheless. The Attorney General’s office says it has not collected the funds.
Federal investigators informed Jones in November 2014 that he was under investigation for tax evasion, court papers say. After a series of meetings with Jones and his lawyer, in which Jones admitted to multiple years of tax evasion, prosecutors tendered a plea offer on a single count with a prison sentence of no more than 36 months. He would agree to pay full restitution to the IRS and the government would not pursue his father or wife.
From the beginning, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon was skeptical. He thought the government was going light on Jones, and that Jones was a piece in a bigger puzzle. The judge was wary of the source of funds behind Jones’ real estate holdings and questioned his ability to pay off the tax debt. When Jones made his first appearance in court on May 5, 2015, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Saler disclosed that the monthly consulting payments from Stadium Group were “a pretext to provide additional money to the defendant for the sale of the property.”
Two weeks later, Leon said he was “befuddled,” according to a court transcript. “It appears to be a conspiracy that [he] was a part of? Multiple parties? Is there a pending grand jury investigation without targets? What’s going on here? Because this is much, much more fulsome than you’re asking [him] to plead to. It’s not even close. What’s going on?”
“Well your honor,” Saler replied, “there is—I mean, there is an investigation beyond just the defendant.”
“Is there a tax investigation?” Leon demanded to know.
“Tax and other offenses,” said Saler.
“[If] you think you’re going to just waltz in here, and you’re going to rush a plea under these circumstances, that’s not going to happen,” Leon said, wondering whether “there’s a problem with your case that you’re trying to masquerade. There are an extraordinary number of felony offenses but he’s charged with one count. Now, maybe you guys don’t want to try cases anymore, or, I don’t know.”
In September, Leon resumed his interrogation of Saler, who was fuzzy about the funds Jones used to purchase the Queens Chapel Road properties. “Was it because you didn’t care, you weren’t interested, it wasn’t relevant? What was your reasoning for why you didn’t inquire?” the judge asked. “He is leveraging this real estate holding to get a bogus [$24,000]-a-month consulting contract; is that right? It’s bogus. He wasn’t actually going to do any consulting.”
Saler confirmed. Leon pounced: “So the people who were engaged in this contract with him were engaged in a conspiracy?” asked the judge, forcing Saler to disclose that the grand jury investigation, unrelated to tax evasion, had been open before the government even talked to Jones. “There’s an ongoing, I would refer to it as an umbrella grand jury,” Saler said.
Clues about that grand jury emerged in April. “Tru” Redding pleaded guilty to tax evasion, was sentenced to two years in federal prison, and was ordered to pay $1.4 million to the IRS. Gambling debts, defaulted bank loans, expensive cars, and jewelry were on display as Redding accepted his sentence. In phone conversations with City Paper, Redding described himself as the low man on the totem pole. He claimed that federal investigators were more interested in Forney and lucrative contracts to renovate city properties—contracts that involved Redding as a subcontractor.
“I didn’t know [Forney’s] being investigated because of all these politicians,” Redding said, identifying former City Administrator Neil O. Albert as a person the feds were interested in. Redding claimed that, although he subcontracted with Forney, he had no knowledge of the origins of the contracts. “They thought there was money laundering involved,” he said of the investigators. “They thought it involved Jones. I don’t know anything about it. All I wanted to do was buy a strip club and develop the property. The prosecutor told my lawyer, ‘He’s not the man we thought he was.’”
Sources familiar with Forney, Albert, and Jones corroborate Redding’s story. They say that in 2009, Albert directed a prospectus for a strip club to Forney and Redding and put them in touch with Jones. In time, Stadium Club would become a magnet for sports stars, but would also attract violence and regulatory problems. The D.C. Council censured Marion Barry in 2013 for accepting cash from Forney at Stadium Club.
Forney and Albert did not return calls for comment. Jones declined to comment. Saler referred questions to a spokesman, who said his office does not comment on open cases.
If Redding is the low man on the totem pole, Jones has emerged as the second lowest, a man who, despite hauling in more than $4 million over six years, now has to scramble to cover his tax debt. Last week, Jones appeared before Leon and informed the judge of his plan to sign over the $24,000 monthly payments he negotiated with Forney and Redding for “services previously rendered.” He has yet to receive his final sentence. Whether the U.S. Attorney’s office plans to prosecute targets higher up the pole remains to be seen.