City Paper is not for tourists
The students who entered the job skills course at the Congress Heights Training Center last year were promised all sorts of instruction to help them find work in today’s economy: how to use a computer, answer an office phone, and treat clients professionally. But they say that instead they got all sorts of extracurricular instruction from the nonprofit center’s president, longtime Ward 8 politico Phinis Jones.
According to several students, Jones repeatedly barged into the classroom at the center’s Benning Road SE site and interrupted their studies. In one instance, they say, Jones told a student to remove her hat and then tried to grab it when she refused. They also charge that he gave an unrequested back rub to another student during a typing test. And they say they slaved away on ancient computer equipment in a program propped up by $108,000 in federal grants administered by the city’s Department of Employment Services (DOES).
“He really messed us around,” says Angie Johnson, a student in the program. “He’s an upper-class hustler.”
Jones denies all the charges.
Back in January, more than 20 students from the Congress Heights class descended on the C Street NW office of DOES Director Alexis Roberson to complain loudly about the program Jones runs. Roberson was on her way to testify at a hearing at the District Building, but the angry students wanted a hearing for their complaints.
In addition to the charges concerning outdated computers and Jones’ conduct, the students complained to Roberson about Jones firing their instructor, Lynette Greene, with only a few weeks left in the five-month classroom portion of the program. “We only had three weeks left,” says Domonique Williams, who left the program after Greene’s firing. “We were concerned. It was a critical time.”
Within a week, DOES and Congress Heights had obtained a set of new computers for the final weeks of training. But as for the other allegations, Roberson and her staff made it clear that Jones is a trusted District contractor, and his word that there was nothing to the charges was good enough for them.
Jones says he’s the victim of a vendetta launched by students who are loyal to a teacher he fired for good reason. “We had four or five people who bonded with Ms. Greene who are trying to make me look like a monster,” says Jones.
DOES has a long-standing relationship with Jones. Firms that he owns have secured dozens of contracts with the agency over the years in amounts as small as $10,000 and as large as $400,000with the cumulative tab running into the millions, according to information provided under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars. His Congress Heights center won two contracts in 1996the $108,000 computer program, and a $100,000 building maintenance training contractdespite a DOES contract-review report stating that Congress Heights had a poor credit rating from Dun & Bradstreet and that “the District’s risk in entering into a contract with [Congress Heights] is high.”
The recent bumps in his relationship with trainees in the clerical program haven’t deterred Jones’ companies from applying for three new DOES job-training contracts. If his companies win the contracts, Jones will shoulder some of the burden for bringing the District into compliance with new federal laws requiring that welfare recipients find jobs. Jones says he’s more than equal to the task, having been in the training business for more than 10 years, but his credentials for the contracts also include close ties to Ward 8 warhorse Wilhelmina Rolark and Mayor Marion Barry.
Jones has run with the players ever since he arrived in Washington in 1968 from his native Mississippi. By the time D.C. won home rule in 1974, he had gathered enough notoriety for a decent 564-vote showing in the first Ward 8 council race, finishing fifth in a crowded field. Two years later, he backed Rolark when she unseated the Rev. James Coates and soon thereafter became her most trusted deputy, serving as her chief of staff for five years and in other official capacities until 1986.
From his position in Rolark’s office, Jones cultivated strong ties with business, union, and community leaders in Ward 8, which would later help him leap into government contracting. In 1985, he formed Capitol Services Management Inc., a firm specializing in consulting, employment training, and job placement. The company won its first contracts with DOES in 1987, at a time when the agency was under a cloud for allegedly pushing business to Barry friendlies. Capitol Services continued to win contracts, both when Barry was in and out of office, including ones for $400,315 in 1992 and $354,332 in 1994 for job training.
Jones says that his contracting business has stayed busy since it was formed.
“We probably had three [contracts] at any given time,” he says.
Jones expanded his portfolio by starting a construction company and another consulting firm. One of his most prominent clients was Yong Yun, a Barry associate who built a now-infamous Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue office building in Congress Heights. Yun was indicted this year on 28 felony counts involving alleged kickbacks that prosecutors say he generated by inflating construction costs on the building. (Jones has not been implicated in the kickback scheme.) Barry’s administration originally guaranteed Yun that the D.C. government would lease space in the building for 10 years with payments totaling $6.5 million, and Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s administration upped the numbers to $17.6 million over 20 yearsall before the building was even completed.
“Yong Yun wants to build a building,” says one observer of the dealings who asked to remain anonymous. “Wilhelmina Rolark is the councilmember. Guess who he hires? Phinis Jones.”
Jones worked as a paid intermediary between Yun and the East of the River Community Development Corp. (ERCDC), which provided $100,000 in services to help launch the construction project. Although Yun had paid back $30,000 in 1990, he had trouble keeping up with his payments. ERCDC leaders battled with Yun to recoup the remaining $70,000right up until 1994, when Kelly appointed Jones to serve as chairman of the ERCDC board.
Later that spring, former ERCDC director Nathan Saunders alleged in a multimillion-dollar wrongful termination suit that after Jones took office, he told Saunders to forget Yun’s $70,000 debt. Saunders claimed in the suit that he was fired for refusing to let the Yun debt slide, along with other questionable demands by the ERCDC board at the time. The parties later settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.
Jones’ detractors insist that his ERCDC appointment is payoff for years of fealty to whichever local politico was on the rise, citing Jones’ ties to Kelly’s political team as the boost that landed him in the unpaid chairman’s post. When the disastrous Kelly years ended, Jones forged ties to the Barry camp by working closely with Eydie Whittington, Barry’s handpicked successor to finish his council term after he won back 1 Judiciary Square in 1994. Jones served as Whittington’s campaign manager in her unsuccessful bid to keep the seat in 1996.
Jones sees nothing tawdry in the alleged overlap between his political activism and his business interests.
“It’s absolutely unfounded that there’s a conflict of interest,” he says. “I’m strictly a volunteer for the ERCDC.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me being out there [in politics],” adds Jones, who insists that the charges about his friendships translating into contracts are untrue because “these proposals can’t win on their political strengths.”
Jones’ tall frame settles easily into his chair as he receives me in his Congress Heights offices. He has skipped the tie today and talks in a relaxed tone, explaining how the clerical program that has been the subject of complaints from students is actually a model of good municipal contracting.
“The city has absolutely no risk in doing business with me,” he says, describing his “performance-based” contract that pays out as participants reach preset benchmarks in basic math and English, typing, proficiency with word processors and spreadsheets, and general office skills. “If we have not met the benchmarks, the city does not get billed.”
Like any resourceful entrepreneur, Jones found a way to make the most of his DOES contract. The program was housed, for instance, at the Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center under a rent-free deal that guaranteed preference for parents of children at the school. Right off the bat, the program participants found that the bargain had its priceno running water in their bathrooms.
After several weeks of student complaints, DOES fixed the plumbing. Another equipment problem, however, took a lot longer to resolvethe lack of computers capable of running software that the program had promised to teach.
“The computers were so slow,” says former student Johnson. “They were like toys.”
Greene, the instructor, calls the machines “dinosaurs” and says there were only about 20 of them for her 30 students. Most of the units, she recalls, were souped-up 286 IBM compatiblesthe equivalent of an Edsel in today’s personal-computer marketplace. Some didn’t even have hard drives.
Greene says she upgraded several of the machines by wiring them with advanced chips, which Jones purchased, but she says that the class still crept along because the computers could not handle the software the students were learning. Former student Williams says Greene made do in a very difficult situation.
“I learned a lot only because we had an excellent instructor,” she says.
Roberson says that her office heard nothing at all about the computer problem until the impromptu Jan. 7 invasion of her headquarters by the Congress Heights students. “I had no idea,” she says. “That’s when it came to my attention.” Roberson stresses that she oversaw the acquisition of new computerswhich Jones contends were not required under the contractwithin a week.
Greene was already gone, however, which prompted students like Johnson and Williams to quit the program without ever tapping away on the new computers. Greene contends she and Jones had several minor disagreements, including her insistence that he compensate her separately for upgrading the computers, which eventually led to her firing.
Jones says that he fired Greene for skipping a workday for vacationa charge that Greene disputes.
“I think she is a disgruntled person who got fired,” says Roberson.
Jones points out that even the students who left the program in a huff said they learned while they were there, which he says is the only vindication he needs. However, participants like Lashawn Bridges say the course inflated their job qualifications. “In the records at the school, they said I type at 40 words per minute,” Bridges says. “When I went [to a temp agency], I found out that was 20 words per minute.”
Students say that while the Congress Heights Training Center didn’t show all that much interest in their professional development, the program took an unusual interest in their private lives. They were each asked to fill out a six-page questionnaire seeking detailed information on their psychological makeup, drug habits, religion, family, and criminal records. One question asked about the student’s “living arrangement” and offered the following choices: “a) Alone, b) Alone and kids, c) Sexual partner, d) Sexual partner and kids, e) Parents, f) Family, g) Controlled environment, h) Unstable environment.” Another question asked, “How many CLOSE friends do you have?”
“I was like, ‘This is a computer class,’” says Bridges. “What does this have to do with computers?”
Jones says he needed the information in case prospective employers inquired about students in the program.
One of the more serious allegations by Greene and other students is that Jones went into class one day and tried to grab the hat off of a female student, yelling at her and forcing her to leave the center when she resisted. Greene and another witness, who requested anonymity, also contend that Jones gave a back rub to a student without her having asked. It was not the first time Jones had approached that student, says Greene.
“It was not only one incident,” she says. “It was several times.”
Jones flatly denies the back-rubbing allegation, but agrees he had a confrontation with a student over her hat. He says that he never tried to snatch the “toboggan cap” from her head, but did kick her out of class for violating the rules after he had warned her a week earlier.
“You can’t come to class without being well groomed,” he says. “She knew the rules.”
Jones stresses that the people he seeks for the program tend to be on public assistance or live in public housinga tough group to prepare for the working world. “I’m absolutely no-nonsense about this program,” says Jones. “You’ve got to respect that some of these people haven’t worked in 15 years.”
The ultimate measure of success, says Jones, is that 13 of the 20 participants who completed the program are now working at wages of $6.75 an hour or better, and that his program is busy looking for slots for the remaining ones. Jones takes in about $4,300 for every student who completes the program, finds a job with the assistance of the center, and keeps it for 90 days. A few of the program’s graduates, however, dispute whether the center played a role in finding employment for them.
But participant Anne Bellinger says Jones is guilty of nothing more than preparing the students to make their way in a harsh world.
“It was a very stressful programthe pressures that were put on you with the personality conflict,” she says. “Mr. Jones is like a boss….You have to deal with it. If you can deal with Mr. Jones, you can deal with any boss that comes your way.”CP