By Bill Myers and Jeffrey Anderson
Chroniclers of local politics may have noted two rival clans competing for the wanting throne that presides over the District of Columbia. One house dwells mostly east of the Anacostia River and marks its descent from the Civil Rights era and its principle dynast, Marion Barry. The other unfurls its standards in Ward 4 and is embodied in Mayor Muriel Bowser, heir to the Green Team, a political and fundraising crusade left to her by her mentor, former Mayor Adrian Fenty.
But in the figure of Ward 8 Council Member LaRuby May, the flags of the rival houses have united under a single banner. May recites heroic verses about growth, transparency and accountability, but she and her privy councilor—businessman and longtime ward fixture Phinis Jones—have quietly built an empire on which the sun never sets. It’s also an empire on which the sun has never shined.
Poring over hundreds of pages of public records, District Dig has charted a complex political and business alliance with grand claims to D.C.’s political capital—an alliance that promises its subjects cradle-to-grave service, all the while blurring the lines between public and private money.
May embodies and synthesizes the traditions of both political houses. Raised in Pensacola, Fla., she is the youngest (of seven) of the Right Rev. Theophalis May, a domestic Colossus—a self-made construction mogul who answered his call to public service through economic revitalization and historic preservation, and whose name adorns a public resource center. Yet she has risen to her prominence as a champion of the self-described progressive Green Team by campaigning for Bowser in Ward 8 and desperately trying to lend the Mayor credibility East-of-the-River.
Straddling the two generations requires poise, but May appears to have done a right royal job of it. She ascended to Barry’s D.C. Council seat in a special election upon his death in 2015, and has since danced nimbly around her entanglements with Jones, her chief fundraiser and patron—a man whose pedigree includes community-based public-private business dealings, a history of bad debt, and the occasional whiff of scandal.
The waltz may be more difficult than May lets on. Along with Monica T. Ray—a Jones business associate who was May’s campaign treasurer—the trio are linked through a labyrinth of private companies and nonprofit groups, most of which rely on public funding. May, who is seeking re-election in the June 14th Democratic primary, typically downplays her relationship with Jones and Ray, choosing the word “supporter” to describe them. Such modesty notwithstanding, the relationship, raises a classic question of D.C. politics: Have May, Jones and Ray come to do good but stayed to do well?
May and her cohorts did not respond to repeated requests for information about the happenings in their realm.
A Noble Pedigree
May has a bachelor’s degree in family studies and a graduate degree in community counseling and psychotherapy. She received a law degree from the University of District of Columbia, and is an active member of the D.C. and Florida bars. She first entered community service in Ward 8, in 2002, while attending law school, as director of a church program that ministered to elementary and middle school children.
Her origins in D.C. politics go back to 2005, when she was Barry’s legislative intern and director of Ward 8 constituent services. In 2007, she began consulting for Vision of Victory Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that taught job skills to at-risk youth and, with help from Barry, won funding from the D.C. Department of Employment Services.
In rapid time, however, she caught the eye of Mayor Fenty. In 2008, he appointed her to the board of commissioners of the D.C. Housing Authority, a seat she held even as she rose to executive director of Vision of Victory. Not one to shy from multiple affiliations, May also became a senior project manager at Capitol Services Management, Inc., a construction, real estate and public engagement firm owned by Phinis Jones—with Monica Ray its vice president. (May became board chair of Capitol Services in 2009.)
These disparate threads of public service and private enterprise are but the fringe of May’s complex tapestry of business and politics.
Take, for instance, the Roundtree Residences, a $16.3 million affordable housing complex for elders on Alabama Avenue, SE, built with more than $10 million from local and federal government agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money, in the form of direct cash, subsidies and tax breaks, went to Vision of Victory, in 2010, with May, still a board chair at the housing authority, testifying before a city zoning appeals board on the company’s behalf.
Once funds were secured, a share of $2.8 million in development and management fees went directly or indirectly to Vision of Victory and a pair of companies owned by Jones—including Capitol Services, which, among several addresses, can be reached at 3215 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., SE, in a home owned by Ray.
One of the other beneficiaries of the Roundtree project was Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which sold the land to a joint venture consisting of the church, Vision of Victory, Jones’ District Development Group—also located at 3215 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.—and a fourth partner, after loaning money to the partnership group. May and Ray both attend Allen Chapel and have served as its officers. Its minister, Michael E. Bell, was at the time sole board member of Vision of Victory, which listed just one employee—LaRuby May.
The Dig was unable to locate nonprofit tax returns for Vision of Victory after a 2010 filing (for the 2008 tax year).
“These types of relationships are exactly why communities East-of-the-River have languished,” says Ralph J. Chittams, a Ward 7 activist, questioning the May-Jones-Ray triumvirate’s track record of success. “I can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. It’s all so incestuous.”
The Roundtree, of course, is not Phinis Jones’—or Capitol Services’—only publicly subsidized senior housing project. As of this writing, Jones is suing the District government over funds he claims are owed to Park Southern, which is itself the center of an investigation launched before Bowser seized the mayoral throne, over how its public dollars were spent and managed. To the mayor’s chagrin, Jones’ involvement in the scandal immediately called into question Bowser’s relationship with May.
Jones, himself, has a long entry in the chronicles of D.C.’s dynastic politics. He came up from Mississippi in 1968 and ran unsuccessfully for Ward 8’s council seat in the District’s first democratic election. He worked briefly for the woman who bested him, Wilhelmina Rolark, before he got his first taste from the public-private banquet on which he has feasted ever since. The company that became Capitol Services was organized to bid for the exclusive rights to print the Washington cable guide.
In his own estimation, Jones is a kind of Galahad.
“A breakthrough in the business world is to just have major contractors and developers to have faith that you can do the work and do it right,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “There is a myth that we can’t do it. The biggest challenge is to have that breakthrough and get to where people have the confidence where they’ll call you. Now it’s a situation where major contractors, if they get a job, they will say to their lower stat people, ‘Reach out to Capitol Services; if they tell you they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it right.’”
He certainly has been busy: He and Ray have been linked to more than three-dozen businesses here in the District, most of them competing for public contracts under the city’s minority set-aside rules. And that is just his District fiefdom. In 2013, he bragged to an interviewer that he had actually done more business outside of D.C. than in it.
“So it’s the fairness—the inclusion—in other cities,” such as Richmond and Winston-Salem, Jones told his interlocuter. “I’m looking forward to doing a lot of business in Pensacola, Florida.”
That wasn’t Jones’ first entrée into May’s native heath, however. Sunshine State records list him as one of the leaders of a group called The United Black Fund for America, which was headquartered on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast, but registered for business in Florida as early as 1983.
Childcare & Education
Vision of Victory’s benevolence was not limited to elders, such as those who were served by the Roundtree project. The company ran a pre-K program at Allen Chapel’s grounds. When the program opened in 2013, a newspaper calling itself The Capital News heralded the development by saying: “Parents are looking for a childcare program that will provide a safe, nurturing learning environment. Vision of Victory Child Development Center provides that need that every parent desires.”
The author of the piece was Phinis Jones, who went on to inform his readers that he had “adopted” one of the center’s classrooms financially, “to pour back into the community and be an example for other parents, grandparents and friends of the center. I encourage as many nearby residents and parents to do the same!”
Within a few weeks of that piece, Capital News hailed the opening of Community College Preparatory Academy, a publicly funded charter school designed to help adults catch up on missed educational opportunities. This time, the byline was listed only as “C.N. Staffer.”
The academy, too, was founded by May, who served as its board chair, but it also had a little help from her friends. Monica Ray was the academy’s trustee and founding board member—she currently is listed on its website as board chair—and Phinis Jones chaired its “Friends of CC Prep” committee.
In the application for the CC Prep academy, Ray also was listed as chief executive officer of the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corp., “one of the most productive and effective adult training programs in the community.” (The corporation, founded by Jones and located at Ray’s 3215 MLK Jr. Ave. address, is involved in the redevelopment of a Congress Heights housing complex that, according to news reports, has been plagued by squalid living conditions. Residents there fear being displaced.)
CC Prep has even more in common with other ventures controlled by Jones and Ray. A July 2015 Public Charter School Board memo, three months after May became Ward 8 council member, lists the prep academy—along with Capitol Services and a company called 7L Group Inc.— as vendors at Cedar Tree Academy, with contracts totaling $486,000 effective in July and August of last year. (CC Prep is listed as entering into a property lease agreement with Cedar Tree worth $216,000.)
7L was paid for mold abatement at Cedar Tree, but the company appears to be something of a renaissance outfit. Records kept by the District Office of Disability Rights’ website show that 7L was an officially recognized sign language agency. Disability Rights lists no address for the company; Instead, the curious are directed to the attention of LaRuby May.
Florida business records show that what appears to be a related entity, 7L Group LLC, was founded by May and her siblings. Its headquarters are listed as May’s 11th Place home in Southeast. 7L Group Inc., however, which is in receipt of a $150,000 “owners and representatives” contract with Cedar Tree, is located at 3215 MLK Jr. Ave., according to D.C. business license records.
Whatever its work offerings, 7L certainly had royal sanction. In 2009, then-mayor Adrian Fenty joined LaRuby May for a photo op at the 7L Group’s MLK Jr. Avenue offices to announce a “work readiness program.”
Within a few scant months, May would become a key figure in Fenty’s signature scandal.
The Green Team Connection
In 2009, the then-chair of the city’s housing authority board asked too many questions about why his agency was approving secret, no-bid contracts to Fenty’s cronies—for remodeling parks. Fenty peremptorily fired him, and, casting about for a new leader, found in May a most willing courtesan.
Even after the public got wind of the scandal, and the D.C. Council ordered the housing authority to cease all payments to Fenty’s pals, May “played a key role” in making sure secret, Christmas Eve payments went out, anyway, according to an independent investigation commissioned by the D.C. council.
The public outrage over the scandal would help send Fenty to an ignoble defeat. (In 2006, he had won every precinct in the city; in 2010, he couldn’t even win his Crestwood neighborhood, let alone Ward 4.)
Fenty’s dethronement did little to deter May’s accession up the ranks in the public-private sector. City records show that in 2012, 7L secured a $160,000 contract with the Howard Road Academy, a predecessor of Cedar Tree. Then there was, of course, her work on Roundtree and CC Prep.
May may not have rested on her laurels, but she certainly accepted a few of them. In 2011, Monica Ray’s Congress Heights Training and Development Corp, through a subsidiary, the Great Streets Business Leadership Council, lauded May, this time in her role as 7L’s leader, as the “Outstanding Woman Owned Business” of the year.
If the Green Team ever resented May for her role in Fenty’s humiliation, all certainly seems to have been forgiven. In 2014, May served as Bowser’s campaign chair, and Bowser gave May a fulsome endorsement in the 2015 special election, even as Phinis Jones fended off questions about Park Southern.
And now May and her friends look to the future.
“Bigger Than Basketball”
As the Democratic primary fast approaches, the council is weighing a fat subsidy for a sports arena (that would include a practice facility for the Washington Wizards) in Ward 8. On March 23, May penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, and took umbrage at the notion that public funds in support of the project should be limited to $50 milllion. Weaving the rhetoric of old school and new, May called the proposed arena an “investment in our community” that “is bigger than basketball.”
“No member of the council is more committed than I to be making sure that Ward 8 businesses and residents benefit from the investments of the District,” she typed. “We have been underserved and underinvested in for far too long. The issue here is not accountability for spending too much in Ward 8; it is that the District hasn’t spent enough in Ward 8. The District has invested in assets that have been anchors to development in affluent neighborhoods, but now that the investment is an underserved community, the strategy should change?”
The strategy hasn’t changed completely. In a Feb. 23 meeting to assuage the community, officials at Events DC, one of the companies plumping for the Wizards development, reassured folks that help was on the way. Job training was coming, the group and city officials announced, and “Monica Ray of [Capitol Services] will be a huge help to the team in neighborhood outreach,” officials said. “Capitol Services operates a ‘High Tech and High Touch’ philosophy to reach all the members of the community.”
You’ll have to admit, there’s a certain majesty to it all…