City Paper is not for tourists
If there’s been a constant thread through Mayor Adrian Fenty’s term in office, it’s a mania for measuring performance with standards and statistics. From the Metropolitan Police Department to D.C. Public Schools to the city’s flock of social workers, every facet of city government is—in Fenty’s narrative, at least—subjected to rigorous evaluation. If the stats don’t look good, there’s hell to pay.
Every facet, that is, except one. When it comes to Peaceoholics, the Ward 8-based non-profit organization founded by ex-offenders that works with at-risk kids, the mayor simply goes on faith. Fenty has appeared at Peaceoholics’ go-go shows-turned-campaign rallies, praised them effusively to reporters, and talked them up before voters at mayoral debates. “I’ve met the kids, I mean, I don’t need any statistics,” Fenty told one community activist last month.
Now Fenty’s dogged support of the group, which says its work on the streets quashing gang beefs that would otherwise return D.C. to its days as the nation’s “murder capital,” is becoming one of the great mysteries of his struggling re-election campaign. In the past, no one in the Wilson Building questioned the group’s willingness and dedication to take on some of the city’s most troubled kids and entrenched gang warfare. But a review of contracts and tax documents detailing money Peaceoholics has gotten from the District during Fenty’s administration, as well as interviews with former Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services staffers, suggests the group may not be delivering the sustained results Fenty usually demands. Money made its way to Peaceoholics outside the usual channels, and without meaningful government oversight or detailed explanations of what services the District wants. Add in the very public ways the group’s co-founder, Ron Moten, has boosted Fenty’s re-election campaign, and the situation looks downright strange.
Peaceoholics has received more than $10 million in grants and loans since 2005 through DYRS, MPD, DS, D.C. Council earmarks, and other agencies—most of the money coming from no-bid contracts. The payments started before Fenty took office. But during Fenty’s term, a steady trickle of cash became a flood. By 2007, tax records show, Peaceoholics was doing so well that its two highest-paid employees, Moten and director Jauhar Abraham, were making around $100,000 each. (No federal tax records are available after 2007.) In 2008 and 2009, DYRS alone paid the group about $1 million a year. In exchange, they worked with an average of just 22 kids per month, according to the group’s own records.
This year, copies of city contracts show Peaceoholics got $500,000 in federal cash through the District’s Justice Grants Administration, which doesn’t need council approval. The contract lists only broad categories that Peaceoholics planned to spend the money on: $99,000 for personnel; $16,830 for “fringe benefits”; $11,000 on travel; $4,500 for supplies; $7,000 for equipment. A full $251,000 was earmarked for “contracts/consultants,” with no further explanation in the document. Under “other,” they listed $110,170 in expenses.
A source familiar with dealings within DYRS says the grant was part of a larger plan: Fenty wanted Peaceoholics to receive $900,000 for the year: “$500,000 from JGA, and $400,000 from DYRS.” Last month, Washington City Paper reported Fenty was pushing DYRS and the D.C. Children & Youth Investment Corporation to find the other $400,000. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the committee that oversees DYRS, says the administration dropped the effort once it became public.
Other years, money went to Peaceoholics without the group being named as the recipient. Documents obtained by the Fraternal Order of Police through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to City Paper show that in 2008, at least $100,000 from the Metropolitan Police Department went to two projects, Reaching Out to Provide Enlightenment and the Ward 4 Petworth “Rebuild the Village” Project, for which Peaceoholics served as fiduciary agents. Documents pertaining to those contracts give only vague breakdowns of how the money was spent or what work it paid for. Fenty’s office didn’t respond to requests for clarification.
Public documents give little indication that the rigorous standards Fenty holds city agencies to applied to Peaceoholics. In 2007, for instance, the organization took in about $2.2 million, according to Internal Revenue Service records—all but $34,008 of it in government contributions. It spent more than $1 million on “consultants,” without any disclosure of what that covered; $21,000 on bank charges; and $36,000 on telephones. (Other money went to staff training, youth field trips, supplies and youth stipends.) That same year, Peaceoholics pledged in one of its own progress reports to “continue to strengthen internal processes and procedures” and “forge collaborative relationships” with other D.C. agencies and non-profits.
Moten says Peaceoholics is performing a valuable service, one that’s hard to measure using conventional stats: “We’re doing something most people can’t do.”
But Fenty’s unhesitating praise, apparent willingness to give the group anything it asks for, and the lack of effective oversight into Peaceoholics’ activities have been a problem. “I think a tremendous burden was placed on them, and there was no way they could have lived up to the expectation,” says Kenny Barnes, who runs ROOT Inc., a group that works with families of homicide victims and frequently interacts with Peaceoholics.
The controversies swirling around Peaceoholics—poor accounting of their activities and a refusal to play well with others—were evident even before Fenty won the 2006 election.
By then, their reputation was rising. Moten had proven himself as someone who could handle a press conference as well as a gang fight.
When the group helped organize a sitdown between then-Mayor Anthony Williams and Ballou Senior High School kids after a student was killed, The Washington Post was there. When they brokered a truce between two rival gangs, a Post reporter wrote it up. If a teen was killed in the city, Moten was always ready to share his wisdom.
The DYRS brass saw potential, one former official says. “They were activists in the field,” the official explains. “They always had kids around them. They always traveled with delinquent kids. They would provide us with good information.”
But according to several DYRS sources and another contractor familiar with Peaceoholics, the organization lacked the things resilient non-profits need. “They had zero infrastructure,” says the former official. “They didn’t have their own organization… Ultimately, I’d like them to stand on their own. But they just couldn’t.”
They needed a crash course on all the boring stuff every 501(c)(3) must do to succeed—grant writing, accountability, and staff development. So city officials encouraged Peaceoholics to work through its organizational issues with the national non-profit Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. (YAP), based in Harrisburg, Pa. Moten and Abraham initially agreed, and YAP helped Peaceoholics win a DYRS grant. Moten presented himself as a charismatic charmer with deep connections—the kind of guy YAP wanted to work with, says one former YAP staffer. But after the grant was awarded, the relationship quickly soured. “When we started working with them on the program, we realized the model wouldn’t work,” Moten says. “They didn’t really understand D.C.”
That wasn’t the issue, says the YAP staffer, noting that their collaboration never got past those initial meetings. “They wanted to kind of fly without strings,” the staffer says. “It was at the early stages that they sort of bailed on us. I never got any glimpse as to how they managed their money.”
After Fenty became mayor, Peaceoholics didn’t need to worry about that. Peaceoholics had something few non-profits had with Fenty: a history. Moten and Abraham say their relationship with the mayor grew out of a mutual respect. Like many on the D.C. Council, Fenty frequently called on them to assist in settling gang tensions in Ward 4 during his tenure.
But Abraham says he never lobbied Fenty for any no-bid contracts. “I never would have that conversation with the mayor,” he says. “It’s disrespectful.” He does admit their relationship is closer than most. When does he talk to Fenty? “Whenever I need to.” Moten says he and Fenty went to junior high together, but hadn’t known each other then, and still aren’t particularly close. “If we talk, we talk about stuff for the city… We’re not friends,” he says. “I’ve never been over to his house. He’s never been over to my house.”
Still, Fenty started pushing for the group to get funding, former DYRS staffers say, and Attorney General Peter Nickles joined in.
“They so much had the mayor’s ear and Peter’s ear,” recalls one former agency official. “Pressure went way up.” Top DYRS officials—including then-Director Vinny Schiraldi—resisted handing Peaceoholics easy money.
During one meeting, former staffers say Nickles ordered Schiraldi to give Peaceoholics a no-bid contract, saying the order came from Fenty. It had to be done. “[DYRS staffers] thought they were full of shit, that they were just political puffers—that they were getting a grant not because of their work, but because they were loud,” one former agency employee says. “They were wired to the Fenty administration.” (Nickles says the conversation “never happened” that way, and he “never advocated for a no-bid contract” for Peaceoholics.)
As the money piled up, the former DYRS officials say, Peaceoholics began to demand that they be responsible for fewer and fewer kids. The work they did was sloppy. Several sources who worked with them recall a curriculum for incarcerated youths filled with typos, and a life-skills program at a middle school that never actually materialized.
“Even though they have that street-level thing going, that can only take you so far,” says a District social worker. “You are dealing with kids with serious mental illness, and serious family issues—multiple layers of trauma. They can’t do the clinical stuff.”
A 2008 DYRS study showed only 40 percent of Peaceoholics’ kids completed their program, and 37 percent of their kids went on to commit more crimes. Asked about the report, Fenty says he is unfamiliar with it. “Most of our children are successful,” Moten says. “We don’t have specifics. I think we do [have specifics] because we’ve given them to people before. I’m sure we do.”
Moten adds: “In three-and-a-half years, nobody has been a victim of homicide or committed a homicide while they were in our program. I don’t know any other program that can say that.” Moten isn’t counting the defendants charged with murdering Shaw Middle School principal Brian Betts. All three had spent time at a Peaceoholics retreat.
Some of Moten’s work on another high-profile case, the South Capitol Street drive-by shootings that left four dead in March, isn’t going over so well. A campaign song Moten has produced for Fenty, “Don’t Leave Us, Fenty,” praises the mayor for his handling of the drive-by, and Peaceoholics have printed up memorial T-shirts to try to raise awareness of the incident.
But one victim’s mother isn’t impressed. “There’s typos on everything they do,” says Nardyne Jefferies, whose 16-year-old daugher Brishell Jones was killed in the drive-by. She says using the shooting for Fenty’s political purposes is “disrespectful” and “insensitive.”
Which only underscores how the blind devotion the mayor has shown Peaceoholics has sometimes led the group astray. If not for Moten’s involvement in the campaign, the organization might not have become the lightning rod it’s turned into this year. And former city officials think Peaceoholics might have done better with a little tough love. Without accountability, the group never had to improve its work.
“At some point, it switched from a sincere effort to help young people and it turned into a money grab,” explains one former DYRS staffer. “They never stopped being hustlers. They found a legal and more lucrative hustle. I believe when they started, they were absolutely sincere. But I do believe it turned into a hustle.”