On Dec. 7, it became official: Al Hajj Mahdi Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. was no longer an advisory neighborhood commissioner. A recount of Nov. 7 general-election ballots confirmed that challenger Kevin Chapple had indeed defeated Thorpe by five votes for his seat on the Shaw advisory neighborhood commission (ANC).
But that doesn’t mean Thorpe will go gently into the night. In the days before the final recount decision, Thorpe moved to maintain his influence in the changing Northwest D.C. neighborhood (“Incoming Fire,” 10/27).
Thorpe’s power grab began on the evening of Dec. 4, at the monthly meeting of the East Central Civic Association, whose bounds fall within his ANC district. There, Thorpe emerged as the president of the association, which is run by a cadre of his supporters.
According to an account of the meeting written by blogger David Smith, Thorpe was named the group’s head after a member strayed away from the meeting’s printed agenda and moved to elect him president. “Since there was no election on the agenda, someone asked president of what?” Smith wrote at fifthandoh.blogspot.com. “She said that she was nominating him for president of the ECCA.”
Even the organization’s then-sitting president, Betty Newell, seemed stunned by the development, Smith wrote. “Mr. Thorpe (who was running the meeting at that point) called for the question and asked for those in attendance to raise their hands for, against, or abstain. I heard no numerical count….Mr. Thorpe was declared the winner.”
Two days later, at the ANC’s Dec. 6 meeting, the ECCA’s new president got his organization some new toys. In his role as ANC chair, Thorpe recognized a grant request from the ECCA and read over the proposal briefly before informing all present that the requested $3,000 was for two laptop computers, accessories, and a digital video camera “to do a documentary.”
Resident Charles Walker asked for the floor.
“There’s been an election,” Walker said, “and looking at how the recount result is probably going to go, I think this commission doesn’t have any democratic mandate to be giving out money like this. I think it should be left to the new commission.”
“Thank you,” Thorpe responded, moving to the next person’s question.
Commissioner Alexander Padro asked ECCA secretary Eloise Wahab, who was presenting the grant request on behalf of the group, if either she or the ECCA had ever received grants for computer equipment in the past.
Wahab said that it had.
Padro then asked her what she’d done with the equipment and if the computers are still in use. Thorpe struck his gavel and readied to take the next question.
According to a 2005 audit report, the ANC awarded $3,691 to the ECCA on Jan. 12 of that year “to purchase four Dell desktop computers for ECCA to correspond with neighbors & D.C. government regarding neighborhood issues.” And in April 2006, Hines Archstone-Smith, a developer selected to develop the old convention center site, donated two Dell laptops, two printers, accessories, and tech support to the ECCA, along with grants to four other community groups.
“We hope that this equipment will help these organizations continue to provide needed services to their neighborhoods,” said Howard Riker, vice president of Hines, in an April 16 press release.
In a recent interview, Riker wasn’t able to identify what if any needed services the ECCA provides to the community, and he said he didn’t know specifically how the group was going to make use of the computers and printers.
“We were under the impression that the computers would be used for organizing community events and would also be available to members of the community,” Riker said.
The ECCA does not have a Web site, there’s no voice mail or answering machine installed on its phone line, and neighbors aren’t sure exactly what the ECCA does. The group has received multiple grants in the past to install iron tree boxes along neighborhood sidewalks.
Thorpe would not comment on the ECCA’s grant request. “Write what you want to write like you always do,” he told a reporter. Newell and other ECCA officers did not return numerous calls for comment.
Martin Moulton, who lives within the ECCA’s bounds, says the group’s meetings are unstructured and chaotic. “They’ll have an agenda, and sometimes they’ll follow it, sometimes they won’t,” he says. “If Leroy comes [to the meeting], they’ll interrupt everything and let him speak, because he usually has to leave early.”
“Aside from putting up the tree boxes, I have no idea what the organization does,” Moulton adds.
This is not the first time that the Shaw ANC, under Thorpe’s leadership, has raised eyebrows about the way it allocates public funds. In the 2005 audit report, the auditor’s staff found that 10 of 19 grant applications were filled out by Thorpe himself, which “could give the appearance of impropriety,” the report reads.
At the Dec. 6 ANC meeting, several residents raised questions about the ECCA’s grant request, questions that were all but ignored. One resident suggested that the ANC could buy laptops for the commission and then put the computers in a public place where both the ECCA and area residents could use them. (Under the current grant’s provisions, the two new computers will be housed in the ECCA officers’ homes.)
“I’m not interested in that,” Thorpe said. “Next question?”
After resigning as ANC chair, Thorpe remained at the head of the conference table and proceeded to nominate Doris Brooks—the vice chair—as the new chair and treasurer. Thorpe then nominated Barbara Curtis as vice chair and secretary. Padro, the only other commissioner at the table, sat silently at the table and was outvoted on each motion.
Then Brooks—with Thorpe whispering prompts over her shoulder—began to read from a piece of paper.
“As chair of the commission of ANC 2C,” she read slowly, “I would like to appoint Leroy Thorpe as parliamentarian of the ANC of 2C for 2007–2008.”
“I accept that,” Thorpe said. A hush fell over the crowd.
“And I also appoint him as the unpaid executive assistant to the chair, and to have his phone number as the main contact for the ANC commission for 2007–2008.”
As parliamentarian, says Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the city’s Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, Thorpe will serve as an adviser to the chair. “It is provided for in [the Shaw ANC’s] bylaws,” Simon says. “When a question comes up about process or procedure, the chairperson can turn to the parliamentarian for advice.” This is the first time the Shaw ANC has had an executive assistant or a parliamentarian.
According to Simon, Thorpe’s maneuvers are by the book. After Thorpe leaves the commission, its four members are free to elect new officers. However, with Brooks and Curtis on the pro-Thorpe side, and Padro and Chapple on the other, the likely stalemate would mean Brooks would continue as chair, free to keep Thorpe as an adviser to the commission.
Nor is there likely a problem with the commission’s ECCA grant; in a similar situation involving an ANC grant to the Dupont Circle Civic Association, according to Simon, city lawyers found no conflict of interest.
“There’s always a distinction to be made between what is legally and technically right and what may be right in a general sense,” Simon says.
At the meeting, one woman spoke up: “I think you are my representative,” she said to Curtis. “So does that make him my representative?”
“You’ll be calling me, at her pleasure,” Thorpe answered for Curtis. “If you want to do any ANC business, you’ll be calling [my number].”CP
Additional reporting by Mike DeBonis