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Ex-felon’s role in D.C. mayor race dubious

Gray campaign: Don’t know him

Cornell JonesCornell Jones

D.C. mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray attended a picnic last month organized by a small nonprofit that works with ex-offenders and is run by a man who was once one of Washington, D.C.'s most notorious underworld figures.

That much no one disputes.

The group, called Returning Citizens United, held a family reunification picnic at Langdon Park in Northeast Washington that featured voter registration, speakers, free refreshments and clowns, according to an event flier. The Gray campaign confirmed that the candidate spoke at the event.

But questions about the extent to which 1980's-era drug kingpin Cornell Jones serves the Gray campaign and at whose behest have led to conflicting and unresolved accounts from the Gray campaign, his council office and Mr. Jones himself.

Mr. Jones, the subject of a 2008 episode of the Black Entertainment Television network's documentary series "American Gangster," acknowledged in a telephone interview last week with The Washington Times that he was campaigning for Mr. Gray.

"It's looking good. He's in the lead, so it looks like we've done a piece of a good job," Mr. Jones said.

"He's the most personable candidate," he said, adding that Mr. Gray's opponent, incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, "waited too long to reach out to constituents." Of the Fenty campaign, he said, "He has people running everything for him, and they never let you near him."

Calls to the Gray campaign and Mr. Gray's council office about how Mr. Jones - who is known for his organizational skills - got involved with the campaign produced more questions than answers.

"Mr. Gray doesn't know a Cornell Jones," said campaign spokeswoman Traci Hughes, who confirmed only that the chairman had attended the picnic. "He doesn't know who that is."

Then the campaign stopped returning calls and refused to answer detailed questions sent by e-mail and text.

When asked to confirm reports that Mr. Gray met with Mr. Jones and asked for his support in the District's lower-income communities, Gray council spokeswoman Doxie McCoy replied by e-mail: "The chairman has not met with Mr. Jones. Jones sought a meeting with our office to discuss the subject of getting more construction jobs for D.C. residents. As a result, a staff member met with him in the spring off-site at his job-training program on that issue."

A day later, however, Ms. McCoy said by e-mail: "Upon further investigation, no one in the chairman's office has met with Cornell Jones, including Chairman Gray. The person I cited who met with staff to discuss a job-training program has a similar name. Sorry for the mis-identification."

By Wednesday - after a week in which he did not respond to multiple phone messages from The Times - Mr. Jones sent several text messages appearing to retract his lengthy comments, saying he had never met or spoken with Mr. Gray.

"I DO NOT WORK 4 THE GRAY CAMPAIGN," he wrote in a text message. "I have always supported MAYOR FENTY, ASK HIM."

The Fenty campaign did not return calls for comment.

But a case manager with Returning Citizens, Curtis Howard, said Mr. Gray attended the Aug. 8 picnic and addressed the crowd and that the group's leaders, including Mr. Jones, spoke personally with Mr. Gray. He said Mr. Jones and a colleague, Debra Rowe, have "done a lot of little things for the campaign."

Ms. Rowe, former HIV/AIDS Administration housing chief, was a partner with Mr. Jones in a nonprofit group called Miracle Hands Community Development Corp. that received more than $5 million in city funding from 2004 to 2009. The organization was the subject of persistent complaints from city monitors and former clients about questionable expenditures and lack of services, according to a 2009 expose in The Washington Post.

In addition, Mr. Howard, also a volunteer at Gray campaign headquarters, said Returning Citizens co-founder Ellwood Yango Sawyer "has been out there all day every day rallying support for Mr. Vincent Gray." He did not elaborate.

Mr. Sawyer told The Times that his organization - a 501(c)(3) charitable group barred by federal law from engaging in political activity - "does not support the Gray campaign."

"Individuals in the organization may support him, but the organization does not. If you say otherwise, we will sue you," he said.

Asked about Mr. Howard's comments, Mr. Jones again replied via text message: "I never met mr Gray, I never spoke 2 mr Gray ... I support mayor fenty, always has. Is that clear enough. And I don't play games."

He went on to say that his earlier comments about his support for Mr. Gray and his criticism of Mr. Fenty had been the result of a misunderstanding owing to a bad cell phone connection.

The Langdon Park event isn't the only one in which Mr. Jones might have helped Mr. Gray.

Multiple sources told The Times that Mr. Jones and Ms. Rowe helped line up go-go bands that provided entertainment for the Aug. 23 Ward 8 Community Day at Oxon Run Park - an event funded by Gray for Mayor, according to an event flier, with a permit requested by the chief of staff for council member Marion Barry.

Mr. Jones, a former nightclub owner who had provided go-go bands for an October 2008 political forum ahead of that year's council elections, did not respond to detailed questions about the Oxon Run Park event.

It remains unclear to what extent Mr. Jones and Mr. Gray know each other or have coordinated their campaign efforts.

But grass-roots supporters have been a persistent sideshow in the mayoral campaign, with the nonprofit anti-violence group Peaceoholics - strident Fenty supporters - being accused of electioneering on behalf of the mayor. In addition, Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten, who like Mr. Jones is an ex-offender, has been a lightning rod for controversy related to his group's receipt of more than $10 million in city funds over the past five years.

While Returning Citizens has not received any city money, Miracle Hands was one of the city's most well-funded HIV/AIDS programs until problems beset the group.

Mr. Jones has a well-documented criminal history dating back to the early 1980s. He was identified by authorities as the predecessor of Rayful Edmond III, the notorious drug kingpin credited with introducing crack cocaine into Washington, D.C., at a time the city was known as the "murder capital" of the United States.

When Hanover Place in Northeast was a one-way block, drug detectives referred to it as a "supermarket" for narcotics sold by Mr. Jones and his organization, according to court records.

The records also show that Mr. Jones owned numerous residential properties in the District and Maryland, where he stored and prepared narcotics for distribution, and used friends and family to conceal his drug-dealing activities. In addition to keeping property in the name of his relatives, detectives found $586,300 in cash bundled in new, large-denomination notes in a safe-deposit box in the name of his father and mother.

Mr. Jones was released from prison in 1995 after serving the low end of a nine- to 27-year sentence on his conviction for running an open-air drug market near the Capitol.

While running Miracle Hands, he also co-owned and operated now-defunct trouble spot D.C. Tunnel, a nightclub plagued by violence until its closure in 2008. He also is managing member of a family-owned real estate company, WFJ LLC, that recently subdivided the industrial lot that once housed both D.C. Tunnel and Miracle Hands, so that a strip club and a new nightclub under different ownership could be established, according to property and liquor-license records.

The records show that WFJ's president is Willie F. Jones, Mr. Jones' father, and that the company bought the parcel in 2002 for $1.2 million. Mr. Jones is identified as a managing member.

The Stadium Club, a "gentleman's club" featuring nude performances, private rooms and "five-star food," opened earlier this year at 2127 Queens Chapel Road in Northeast Washington. Property records show that the venture, which has a landlord-tenant relationship between two limited liability companies both headed by Baltimore businessman James "Tru" Redding, is adjacent to a nightclub called D.C. Star, on the property that once housed D.C. Tunnel.

It is unclear whether Mr. Jones receives any residual payments from either of the companies running those clubs.

Though he emerged from prison in 1995 a man intent on helping others, a pre-sentence report had lower expectations. It read: "Mr. Jones has been a consistent failure every time the criminal justice system has attempted rehabilitate him."

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