Former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. on the day he pleaded guilty to theft and tax fraud in 2012. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Jack Evans’ redemption song goes something like this: He made mistakes. He is embarrassed. He tarnished his legacy and that of the D.C. Council. He’s sorry and he’ll never do it again. But think of all the good he’s done. So can he please have his old seat back?

Evans stood in a Dupont Circle church during last week’s Ward 2 Council candidate forum, 48 days after resigning in disgrace to avoid a vote that would have forced him from office, and asked for a second chance. Nervous applause from the crowd came first, followed by a chorus of boos.

“I started a consulting company three years ago and made a mistake by not putting in place mechanisms to catch potential conflicts of interests,” he said later that evening. “Something I should have done, but I didn’t. And I apologize, but we are a forgiving city, at least we were, and people do get second chances.”

Evans did not invoke any names, but by making reference to a “forgiving city,” he attempts to place himself among the likes of Marion Barry, the “Mayor for Life,” who voters re-elected to the District’s highest office after he was caught on video smoking crack and served time in prison. LL is also reminded of Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, who lost the 2015 mayor’s race due to an unfortunately (or perfectly, depending on your perspective) timed announcement from then-U.S. Attorney Ron Machen about Gray’s alleged misdeeds, which never yielded an indictment.

As the longest-serving D.C. councilmember continues his apology tour, another scandal-tainted local pol has been successfully, though quietly, rebuilding his own reputation.

Harry Thomas Jr.’s redemption song goes like this: He made mistakes. He knew what he did was wrong. He served his time, and he’s repaying the public’s funds he took. So now he wants to use a position in the local Democratic Party as a platform to advocate for currently and formerly incarcerated people like himself.

The former Ward 5 councilmember pleaded guilty to embezzling hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars intended to fund youth programs in 2012 and was sentenced to more than three years in prison. 

Since his release from custody in 2015, Thomas has slowly made his way back into the public eye by helping local businesses and residents navigate the city’s bureaucracy. Last week, he was sworn in as Ward 5’s elected committeeman and plans to attend the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this July.

Last Friday afternoon, Thomas strolled into the McDonald’s on South Dakota Avenue NE, a vibrant community gathering place, and in between bites of a Filet-o-Fish and sips of a Shamrock Shake, he told LL what he’s been up to.

Thomas says he isn’t angling for Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s job—at least not yet.

“It’s not for me to reignite my political [career],” he tells LL, referring to his new role in the party. “If that happens, it happens. That’s not what it’s for. It’s for me to make sure everything I’ve done in my life, I think, is a transferable skill to other people.”

As a guy who is trying to move on with his life after a spectacular fall from grace, Thomas at first doesn’t want to get caught up answering questions about Evans’ bullshit. But as a guy who knows a little something about a comeback, he has some insight.

“Jack’s 20-plus years have defined who he is,” Thomas says. “And I think he thinks he can’t live without that. What I would say to Jack is, ‘there’s so much more to Jack than you know.’”

Potentially working in Evans’ favor at the ballot box, Thomas says, is his name recognition, his longevity, and the influence that a relatively small, but passionate group of supporters can have in a ward-level, as opposed to citywide, race.

So does Thomas believe Evans really has a shot?

“Beyond a shot,” he tells LL. “I really do.”

***

As long as both politicians are in the midst of returning to the public arena, LL thought it useful to compare their downfalls. He needed to look no further than the words of the Washington Post’s editorial board.

The board published more than 10 editorials on each of the respective scandals, and for its missives on Thomas the board earned the distinction of “Best Editorial Jihad” in City Paper’s 2011 Best Of D.C. issue.

LL will admit that the details of Thomas’ case leave little room for sympathy. Using taxpayer money intended to help kids to purchase a luxury SUV and pay for golf outings around the country? Not a good look.

Still, LL wonders what happened to the level of sass and scorn that the board had for Thomas and why the board is taking a milder tone when writing about Evans.

Both Evans and Thomas used their public offices for private gain, both worked to prevent the public release of damning information, both falsely denied wrongdoing until the evidence became overwhelming, and federal agents made house calls to both politicians, the ed board has noted. One marked difference between the two cases is that so far, only Thomas has been charged with any crime. Evans broke ethics rules and corrupted two public bodies, according to two independent investigations by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board and the D.C. Council, but has not been criminally charged. It’s unclear whether the U.S. Attorney’s Office will take further action against Evans.

In both cases, the ed board pushed for answers from Evans and Thomas, and lamented the public’s shattered trust in the people and institutions charged with holding them responsible.

In Thomas’ case, that blame came down on then-Mayor Gray and the councilmembers who remained silent when Thomas agreed to repay $300,000 in taxpayer dollars. Only councilmembers David Catania, Mary Cheh, and Tommy Wells “had the guts to call for his resignation,” the ed board declared on Dec. 3, 2011, while calling out Gray’s response to federal agents searching Thomas’ home as a “boilerplate response … about justice running its course.”

In Evans’ case, the ed board took issue with Metro’s hashed investigation, calling it “incompetent” and “uaccceptable.” 

“The [Metro] board’s first priority must be to reestablish credibility and public trust,” the June 26, 2019 editorial says.

But LL can find no mention in its pages of the threats Evans leveled at Metro employees in an effort to conceal his ethics violations, as the Post’s Robert McCartney reported.

When the majority of Evans’ colleagues called for his resignation following release of a damning report from the law firm O’Melveny & Myers that found at least 11 conflicts of interest and $400,000 in payments from clients that Evans could not explain, the ed board scolded them.

“It is troubling that a majority of council members—including Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who heads the ad hoc committee looking at Mr. Evans and who had promised to bend over backward to be fair—apparently didn’t even wait to read Mr. Evans’s response before deciding that he should resign,” reads an editorial from Nov. 7, 2019.

The ed board called for due process, should Evans ask for it.

In fact, Evans repeatedly called for a chance to tell his side, and then made fools out of his colleagues and the ed board by canceling his anticipated Q&A. At-Large Councilmember Robert White called that “an exercise of extreme privilege.”

Throughout its Evans-focused editorials, the board couches its criticism with praise. Multiple editorials mention Evans’ contribution to the District’s financial stability, his role in revitalizing downtown, and in bringing a Major League Baseball team here. His “levelheaded approach to finances would be sorely missed on a council not known for its common sense,” the ed board wrote on Nov. 7, adding: “But at a certain level of misbehavior, mitigating factors are beside the point.”

In its Jan. 7, 2020 editorial, issued the same day Evans announced his resignation, the board began by applauding his shrewd legislative skills and got a little teary that “unethical conduct brought what had been a productive and constructive political career to this ignoble end.”

Those accolades, while perhaps deserved, contrast with the ed board’s description of Thomas’ “villany” and his “callous scheme,” which prosecutors alleged began shortly after the one-term councilmember took office.

An April 30, 2012 editorial called for the judge to throw the book at Thomas.

“Harry Thomas doesn’t deserve leniency,” the headline that ran ahead of Thomas’ sentencing read. The ed board didn’t argue with letters sent to Thomas’ sentencing judge recalling how he helped seniors, young athletes, and constituents in his ward. “But that doesn’t earn him a pass for robbing the city of its money and the public of its trust,” the ed board wrote.

So far, the ed board hasn’t said a peep about Evans’ resignation in order to avoid the shame of expulsion, nor about his decision to a run for the same seat 10 days later.

***

At the McDonald’s, Thomas is a popular guy. He gladhands the older gentlemen sipping coffee, some of whom he’s known since he was a kid, he says, and promises a lady named Penny he will make some calls to DC Water to help her with a sewer problem.

Thomas acknowledges the differences between the details of Evans’ scandal and his own. But he doesn’t want to dwell on any potentially disparate treatment.

“Could you play the race card?” he asks. “Probably if you wanted to, but what is that going to gain us?”

He’d rather talk about the cruelty of solitary confinement and the injustice of banning felons from working in the marijuana industry.

“Marijuana is now a budding industry,” he says. “You wanna restore some lives? Let them go work in that industry.”

He says he’s in touch with former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and former At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown (no relation), local pols whose Council terms ended in scandal and prison time around the same time Thomas’ did. Both are inching back into the public arena with talk shows, and Michael Brown, who was Thomas’ cellmate for a time, is rumored to be thinking about making another run at a Council seat.

Thomas grins when asked about his former colleagues’ plans. “I’ll let them answer that,” he says. “It’s not for me to speculate.”