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Last summer, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray was staring down a crisis.
For one thing, he and city legislators were faced with a last-minute budget crunch to the tune of $660 million, with only a few weeks to find a solution. Meanwhile, the antics of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry had exposed the sordid practice of earmarking, whereby councilmembers directed taxpayer funds to favorite nonprofits—in Barry’s case, nonprofits that he had created and controlled.
Gray came up with a tidy way to address both problems: End all earmarks, cold turkey.
“I don’t want to pick and choose because, inevitably, we will be accused of some bias in the process,” Gray told the Washington Post at the time. “People are using them as a lifeline.” Organizations from across the District showed up at city hall, calling on the council in a marathon hearing to preserve their lifelines, but Gray held his ground—no earmarks survived in the final budget.
Or did they?
The earmark ban, it turns out, was not absolute. At least one councilmember found a way to steer money to key nonprofits in his ward through the fiscal 2010 budget. That would be Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr.
The key legislative language can be found in the budget of the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. (CYITC), a quasi-independent nonprofit charged with making grants to qualified service providers, then overseeing those grants. The CYITC was directed by the council to spend $1 million on a “Ward 5 anti-crime youth violence initiative.”
How that money was spent is at issue. A Ward 6 initiative, for instance, was competitively bid, with a $280,000 grant going to the well-regarded Sasha Bruce Youthwork program. Same goes for $1 million granted pursuant to the “Blueprint for Action to Counter D.C. Gang and Youth Violence,” focusing on Ward 1.
The Ward 5 money was doled out through a different method.
At a March 4 performance oversight hearing, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells asked Interim CYITC CEO Ellen London about the Ward 5 money and whether it, like the Ward 6 funds, had been subject to competition.
Said London: “They were not competitively bid. We met with the Ward 5 councilmember and talked about what he felt would be the best way to serve the community. We talked about a number of organizations that he suggested we look at that he knows have a track record of good services.”
Allow LL to translate: Thomas had a key role in choosing which groups got city money. In other words, he earmarked funds.
Thomas protests that characterization. “I have no earmarks,” says the councilmember. “We made recommendations for groups we know that have done these types of services, and they have to apply like everybody else to that process.”
The process for CYTIC grantees is not without rigor: Nonprofits have to be federally registered as such, preferably with a recent financial audit, must be in good standing with the District government, and must submit a work plan and budget narrative to be considered for funding.
What are these groups and what do they do? According to a list provided by the CYITC, 21 different ones have been identified to receive funds; checks totaling $380,000 have already been cut to nine.
Some of the groups are relatively well-established, and several, in fact, have been funded in the past by the CYITC. And many of the groups tapped for the anti-gang money have a sporting focus—keeping with Thomas’ well-known jockish tendencies.
The Woodridge Warriors and Washington Chiefs sports teams each got $20,000. And a group called the Falconsedge Male Task Force has received $40,000 in city funds. David Jones, who heads the organization, said the funds went toward the D.C. Falcons, a football team for older youth—kids who had either graduated from high school or dropped out.
“It gives them something to do,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much influence we had over their lives. They’ve still got a mentor.”
The money, Jones says, went to fund jerseys and equipment for his players, and well as bus rental fees for games, which can be as far away as Baltimore and Southern Maryland. The team practices in Ward 5, at McKinley Technology High School, though Jones personally doesn’t live in the ward. Jones says he’s recruited as many as 70 players for the program, with a core group of around 30 participating “on a consistent basis.” Jones estimated about 60 percent are from Ward 5.
Thomas, Jones says, is “a big supporter of sports in the community.…If you have any problems with anything he can possibly help you with, he’ll reach out for you. He’ll do everything he can.” In appreciation, Jones has posted Thomas’ logo on his Web site, with his slogan: “Building Bridges, Finding Solutions, People First.”
Of the nine groups funded thus far, by far the largest chuck of money, $125,000, went to the Friends of Carter Barron Foundation, which has long run arts programs for at-risk youth from across the city.
The CYITC grant, says FOCB President Gloria Hightower, went toward a youth holiday musical, held in December at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium. The event featured 25 kids enrolled in the FOCB’s year-round arts program, plus about 15 “interns” working on the production. Hightower estimates “at least 20, 30 percent were from Ward 5.” (Thomas disagrees, saying, “I would think it was 50 percent of those kids.” He added that Ward 5 seniors and parents attended the show free of charge.)
The six-figure check, Hightower says, went to cover a variety of expenses connected with the show—the venue rental fee, union musicians, professional sound and lights, training staff wages, youth stipends, and an honorarium for guest artist Yolanda Adams, a Grammy-winning gospel singer.
“You have to pay people to get quality work,” says Hightower.
In defending his role in directing the funding, Thomas emphasizes that he made no final decisions; he instead tried to direct funds to groups that he believed would be worthy of investment. “Why as Ward 5 councilmember, when I have the highest amount of murders, would I not make a recommendation for any gang program? Why would I not make a recommendation when I’m on the street every day?” he says, adding that he credits the nonprofits with reducing crime in his ward.
But LL’s earmarking concerns alight on the sanctity of the competitive process. Thomas may know worthy groups doing work in the ward; then again, there may be worthier groups that he might not know about or, for one reason or another, he might not support. That’s why issuing a public request for bids and subjecting it to a rigorous independent review is the best way to spend city money.
Thomas says his role was little more than sending a letter of recommendation on behalf of certain groups. “I sent the money to the CYITC,” he says. “I was grateful that they would listen.”
Listen they did.
In an interview, London said that the CYTIC did not open the Ward 5 money to bids, as it did for most other pools of city funds. And Thomas was influential in the funding process: All of the groups that Thomas suggested, she says, are under consideration for funding; she emphasized that, by and large, the groups he recommended are worthy recipients of the funds. “We had not or have not been asked to do something that we’re not comfortable with,” she says.
Gray—who has led an earmark crackdown, vowing again to excise earmarks from the 2011 city budget—doesn’t share LL’s opinion that Thomas’ designation deserves the E-word. Thomas, says Gray spokesperson Doxie McCoy, “doesn’t have the power to direct this money; it is the Children’s Trust.”
“Councilmembers know their wards, so it is appropriate that they make suggestions,” she adds, “but they don’t have the power to direct the decisions of the [CYITC].”
Earmark Whistleblower SpeakS Out
No person has done more to expose the abuse of council earmarks than Sharon Wise.
Eight months ago, Wise came forward to Washington City Paper to describe how Barry had taken earmark money in the fiscal 2009 budget, sent it to nonprofit groups he created, then directed it to friends and political supporters.
Wise used to be one of them. In her case, she says, it worked this way: She signed a contract to serve as project director for two of the Barry-created “councils” for $65,000 a year. But she never got what she was owed—on Barry’s orders, she says, a portion of the funds were diverted to Darryl Colbert, Barry’s longtime addiction sponsor.
“All me and my son wanted was our paycheck,” Wise said. “And no one could have ever told me it would turn into what it has turned into.”
She still hasn’t gotten her money, though she maintains she did the work she was paid to do. In fact, even after her checks stopped coming for a youth group Barry had tapped her to run, she says she kept it alive free of charge, running a summer program for the kids who had signed up.
On Saturday, Wise and son Theodore Wesby announced that they had filed a lawsuit related to Barry’s bogus earmarks—not merely against Barry and key constituent services aide Brenda Richardson, whom she blames for stiffing her. Wise is also suing the Office of the Inspector General and the D.C. Council itself, for failing to heed Wise’s warnings about Barry.
Wise’s lawsuit offers a peek into why Gray, on the precipice of a mayoral run, won’t be able to extricate himself from the earmarking mess so cleanly—and why he shouldn’t take too much credit for cleaning it up.
By no means did Gray invent the practice, but he certainly did little to put a stop to abuses that Wise had alerted him to. In late 2008, she wrote Gray, describing how Richardson, a paid council staffer, was calling the shots on Barry’s behalf—not the boards of the groups that were paying Wise. She continued to copy him on e-mails, asking him to intervene.
“His advice was, ‘Work it out, talk to Marion,’” Wise says, “which I did.” Bad move: Her appeals to Gray only infuriated Barry.
Gray passed the matter to budget staffers, who convened a meeting—which Wise taped—that made it even more obvious that Barry was exerting direct influence on the groups he’d funded. Meanwhile, OIG, after meeting with Wise, quickly punted on her case.
It wasn’t until July—after Barry was arrested on a stalking charge and City Paper first published Wise’s allegations, backed up by e-mails and audio recordings—that the earmark shenanigans came to an end. Her disclosures led Gray to add council earmarking to the investigatory charge of attorney Robert S. Bennett. His recommendations, in turn, led to Barry’s unprecedented censure and the loss of half his council budget.
“If what happened with me and my son…got this done, then I think that’s a great day in D.C.,” Wise says.
But she’s paid a price. Wise says she’s essentially been ostracized in Ward 8. Onetime friends have gotten in her face, she says, asking why she ratted on Barry. Others blamed her for the fact that all earmarks were cut from the 2010 budget. Just last week, a member of an addiction recovery group she attends repeated that old D.C. chestnut: “Snitches get stitches.” It’s a situation that hasn’t been helped by Barry himself—in his rambling dais apologia prior to the March 2 censure vote, he called out Wise by name.
But she has few regrets: “I live in the District, I pay taxes, and I don’t want anyone taking my taxpayer dollars and giving them to their girlfriends…to their sponsors or anything like that,” Wise says. “I finally didn’t care whether Vince helped me or not, didn’t care whether the OIG helped me or not.…I got me an attorney, I took it to the media, and I’m glad I did it.”
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