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Developers buy support

Hope VI project ‘backers’ get $50 payoffs

(Published June 4, 2001)

By JOHN DeVAULT

Staff Writer

Attorney Jacques DePuy wanted to make sure the D.C. Zoning Commission members noticed the men and women in the back of the room — the ones wearing white T-shirts that said "Just U Wait N See."

"Sometimes at these hearings there are lots of opponents on hand," he told the commissioners on May 21. "But we’re proud to say," he went on, pointing out the group of about 35 men and women, "that this evening there are very many supporters in the audience."

"Supporters," that is, of DePuy’s clients – a well-funded partnership between the D.C. Housing Authority and a Silver Spring-based private development company, Mid-City Urban LLC. The public-private team wants to combine and redevelop two large public housing complexes, the Stanton and Frederick Douglass Dwellings, in Southeast Washington.

The reason for DePuy’s attention to the Just U Wait N See contingent was obvious: The DCHA/Mid-City Urban group needs the zoning board’s approval for its planned $81 million project that mixes market-rate and public housing. To get it, they must show they are working closely with current and former residents of the public housing projects to be redeveloped. "Just U Wait N See" is the name of the community development corporation (CDC) set up to represent residents’ interests; it is a formal member of the development team.

The commissioners seemed to take note of the group’s presence: after a member of the Just U Wait N See contingent, former resident Harold Thomas, testified in support of the new development, commission chairman Carol J. Mitten praised him for his "unusual community spirit. Not everyone shows your degree of involvement," she said.

But the zoning commissioners apparently didn’t know that more than community spirit was motivating the T-shirt-clad residents’ presence that evening.

According to Just U Wait N See co-chairman Brenda Graham, each member of the group was paid $50 to attend the meeting.

That fact emerged dramatically near the end of the hearing. A man who would identify himself only as Maurice, wearing a Just U Wait N See T-shirt, stormed out of the hearing room.

"I came here for the money," he said. "And if you promise me $50, you need to have the cash for me. You don’t tell me I’ve got to go back down to Southeast to get my damned money."

He said that at a pre-hearing meeting at the Stanton Dwellings community center, Graham had promised to pay him and the other CDC-sponsored meeting attendees $50 as soon as the zoning hearing ended.

"She said that after the hearing, we’ll go upstairs and I’ll get paid," he said.

But now, he angrily said, Graham had told him he needed to return to the community center to pick up his money.

"These people are playing me," he fumed. In a later interview, Maurice said he reluctantly returned to the community center and collected his $50.

Outside the hearing room, Terrell Roscoe, another member of the Just U Wait N See group, admitted to a reporter that he had no idea what the hearing was about.

"I’m just here for the money," he said. He said a friend had called and said that if he came to the meeting at One Judiciary Square, he could make a quick $50.

Just U Wait N See’s Graham, interviewed after the hearing, acknowledged the $50 payments.

"Yes, we paid $50 to each person," she said. "These people need transportation. Under the Hope VI rules, this is allowed."

Hope VI is the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development program funding much of the redevelopment project, dubbed Henson Ridge.

Graham later acknowledged that most of the attendees traveled to the zoning hearing in two large vans provided by the city housing authority, making a transportation stipend unnecessary. A DCHA spokesman confirmed that the agency provided two city vans to transport the attendees.

"The folks in Just U Wait N See are partners with DCHA on this project, so it’s appropriate to carry partners to the meeting," he said. However, he said that DCHA had not provided the funds to pay the attendees.

"It would not be at all unusual for a developer to help defray expenses for their fellow team members," DCHA spokesman Arthur Jones said.

A HUD spokesman said that after looking into the incident, the agency was satisfied that no Hope VI funds had been used to make the payments.

Several sources said they believe the lead developer, Mid-City Urban, funded the payments. Repeated calls to Mid-City Urban principals seeking comment were not returned.

Mid-City Urban president Victoria Davis met the Just U Wait N See group at One Judiciary Square after the DCHA buses dropped them off. She was observed as she gathered the group at the building’s front door, led them into the building and directed them to the zoning hearing room.

In addition, Maurice said that he recognized one of the two men who dispensed payments to attendees at the Stanton community center after the hearing as Daniel McCahan, Mid-City Urban’s project manager for the Henson Ridge development. Maurice said he immediately recognized McCahan, since McCahan had made an extensive presentation to the zoning commission.

"I was impressed that a white guy was slinging $50 bills like frisbees in Southeast at that time of night," he said.

Reached at his office, McCahan initially said he would call back with an "explanation" of reports he had helped distribute the cash. But, reached again later by phone, he said he would have no comment.

"This is a decision made at the highest level of the company," he said. He declined to explain further.

The zoning commission is expected to announce its decision at its next meeting on June 11.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator