City Paper is not for tourists
The D.C. Council saw one of the livelier proceedings in recent memory this morning, when Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten appeared before councilmembers Mary Cheh and Phil Mendelson in connection with their investigation into the donation of used city emergency equipment to the Dominican Republic.
The proceeding wasn’t hearing, exactly, but an open deposition. Moten had originally been scheduled to give his deposition behind closed doors on Friday, but he declined to testify, citing the council’s political motivations. Council staff agreed to let him say his piece in public today, in what Mendelson called a “very unusual” proceeding.
Moten set the tone early, with a combative opening statement decrying a “political smear campaign” targeting his organization. He accused councilmembers and media of “attacking the mayor at my organization’s expense” and engaging in a “political charade” that has affected his business and his family. “We hold the council directly responsible for creating an atmosphere where such stories could flourish,” he said of media accounts questioning his organization’s role in the shadowy transfer. The questions will remain, he says, until the “thirst for political blood is quenched.”
Cheh and Mendelson reacted not at all to Moten’s grandstanding. Once their questioning began, some vital facts quickly emerged: It became clear that Peaceoholics, far from being at the center of the giveaway, was something of a bit player. Moten, in his testimony, made it clear that this was a production of David Jannarone, the mayoral director of development, and Sinclair Skinner, an longtime Fenty crony now a businessman and consultant.
It was they, Skinner in particular, who first approached Moten about the donating the fire truck, earlier this year. And it was a company associated with Skinner—-Liberty Industries LLC—-who provided the funds to transport the fire truck and ambulance down to the Caribbean. Moten described Jannarone an acquaintance, while he said he’d known Skinner “for years” through their activist work.
“We agreed that I would join them on a good deed,” he said.
Moten said he’d never been to Sosua, the town that was to get the equipment. He’d only been to the Dominican Republic in 1989, as a teenager, and he confirmed that he doesn’t currently hold a passport.
Then Cheh tried to get Moten to describe his relationship with the District government, in particular the nature of his contracts. That set Moten off again: ‘Cheh…what you’re trying to do is tear down my organization,” he cried. “What I think you’re doing is criminal.”
Moten went on to describe brief contacts regarding procedural matters with Robin Booth, an official in the Office of Contracting and Procurement, and Ronald Gill, a deputy fire chief. (Both were deposed Friday.) Moten went on to describe how the shipping on the ambulance and fire truck—-an $11,000 proposition—-was paid for. He received a check, drawn on Liberty Industries, from Skinner; Peaceoholics turned around and used those funds to pay a shipping company.
Then Cheh turned to the aftermath, in particular Attorney General Peter Nickles‘ (non-)investigation which declared the whole enterprise legal and proper without mentioning the involvement of prime movers Jannarone and Skinner. When Cheh started asking Moten about that investigation, he took the opportunity to embark on more speechifying: ‘The whole thing was to make the mayor look bad; that’s how the whole thing was set up,” he said. “You were on TV 20 times talking about the situation, making it bigger than it is….I know everybody’s running [for office] and they have to do what they have to do.”
That speech won him cheers from about 40 allies in the audience, before Cheh admonished them to be quiet.
Moten continued protesting his alleged victimization: “You all let that happen!” he told Cheh. “You and Phil let that happen!” (As an aside, he referred to Cheh as “Cheh” for most of the hearing.)
Then Cheh turned to the subject of William Walker III, the man who birthed the idea of donating a fire truck to Sosua. Moten gave an account of his involvement that matches the account given by Walker himself, as printed in LL’s column this week—-that he randomly encountered Walker outside an Anacostia restaurant in March, and let slip that he was donating equipment to the DR. That flabbergasted Walker, who had earlier tried to consummate such a deal.
Moten said that he and Walker talked after that about getting Walker’s organization, and kids he mentored, into the deal—-in what would culminate in a big trip down to Sosua with all the interested parties. (Walker was scheduled to testify on the matter in a hearing today, but begged off due to sickness.)
Then the shit hit the fan. The story turned up in the paper, Nickles ordered the firetrucks turned around, and the whole thing has turned into a mess.
Then, an hour into the deposition, Mendelson started his questioning, and that’s when things got especially combative. Moten, under the advice of his attorney, Rodney Mitchell, refused to answer questions that had been previously been asked. “You’re acting like you’re a prosecutor, I’m a criminal,” he said at one point. “We’re not gonna answer the same questions over and over again.” He used that excuse repeatedly over the course of the next 45 minutes, under questioning from Mendelson and Cheh’s chief of staff. Repeatedly Moten tried to invoke his constitutional right against criminal self-incrimination: “Fifth! Fifth!” he’d shout, despite his protestations about not being involved in criminal activity. (At one point, Cheh said after the hearing, she heard Mitchell instructing Moten to say he “didn’t recall” answers to certain questions.)
At another point, Moten referred to a “political assassination at my expense” and told Mendelson, as he tried to confirm a timeline, “Right now my mind is not listening to you…because you’re asking the same question….I think I deserve more respect than that, Phil.”
But for the most part, the questions got answered.
And the picture those answers paint looks a lot like the one painted by Walker: That this production was hijacked from Walker by Skinner and Jannarone, and that those two used Moten and Peaceoholics simply as a nonprofit pass-through to comply with city surplussing regulations. If Moten was indeed a “pawn,” as Walker describes him, nothing in Moten’s testimony today disputes that characterization.
As to why Skinner and Jannarone would pursue such a giveaway, answers will have to come from them. After the hearing, Cheh says she expects to issue subpoenas for their testimony shortly.
Like Walker, Moten says he still wants to donate that equipment: “In hindsight, if we would have had to do it all over again, we would have slowed it down and had a press conference.”