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Longtime Ward 8 politico Phinis Jones doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to doing business with the city. When Jones ran job-training courses at his Congress Heights Training Center, he made quick enemies of his students. By most accounts, the courses offered shoddy training on obsolete computer equipment. And on one occasion, the students alleged, Jones gave an unrequested back rub to a student who was taking a typing test. The problems with Jones’ programs prompted the students to storm the office of Department of Employment Services (DOES) director Alexis Roberson in January 1997.
Soon after the complaints surfaced, the D.C. Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into Jones’ Congress Heights facility for fraud and breach of contract, among other infractions, and a federal inquiry got under way to examine the same data. Amid all the attention from enforcement authorities, Jones forfeited his contracts with the city and shut down his training classes.
But none of that seems to matter to the folks at the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), who just granted Jones a $38,471 contract to provide employment and literacy training to 30 parolees.
DCPS procurement chief Jon Peterson says that Congress Heights “won [the contract] fair and square” and will begin its training of recent ex-convicts later this year.
“I don’t know why they’d be giving him a contract,” says Ward 8 activist and former school board member Calvin Lockridge. “Phinis doesn’t have any record of any success in dealing with these individuals. This school system is in trouble bad enough.”
Jones refused to return calls from Washington City Paper.
The DCPS contract is a tribute to Jones’ staying power as one of the turkeys who flies along on public dollars even though his history suggests DCPS is doing business with him at its own peril. Another part of his resume may help explain his durability against all odds: Over the years, Jones has worked for the campaigns of several political heavies in Ward 8, including Mayor Marion Barry and former Councilmembers Eydie Whittington and Wilhemina Rolark.
In 1987, Jones traded in his campaign petitions for contract applications—a more lucrative career, especially in the District. Over the last 10 years, Jones has collected quite a bit of cash from DOES for job training, including contracts for $400,315 in 1992 and $354,332 in 1994. Even though students had documented problems in the programs, Roberson last August signed off on two more federally funded contracts for Congress Heights, one for $200,000 to broker on-the-job training positions for 70 D.C. residents and another for $135,000 to train 30 adults in clerical skills.
Roberson’s approval of the contracts, according to D.C. government sources, raised the suspicions of the IG and federal investigators. Jones worked as Roberson’s campaign director in her failed bid for a D.C. Council seat in 1994. Not long afterward, Roberson was hired at Congress Heights Training Center as a consultant.
“It was surprising [Congress Heights] would get the contracts, given the context of oversight hearings about DOES we had done in the spring,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, chair of the government operations committee. “One would have thought [DOES] would be a little more leery.”
Last October, just as the investigations began heating up, Roberson announced that she would leave her DOES post, even though the D.C. financial control board had decided only two months earlier to keep her on board. Three weeks later, Jones voluntarily withdrew from his two recently awarded contracts, forfeiting the entire sum.
Peterson says the school system will revisit its contract with Congress Heights only if either the company or Jones gets in serious legal trouble. “Certainly it depends on what the trouble is,” says Peterson. “The magic word is suspension or disbarment of the contract. But before that happens, it has to be something real evil—a conviction or something of that nature.”
Something of that nature may just develop this spring, when a federal grand jury is expected to examine Jones’ business with the city.
“Everyone over here has always been talking about [Jones],” says Ward 8 activist Cardell Shelton. “He’s been a parasite over here. The only person he’s helped in this community is Phinis.”