Get our free newsletter
Just about four years ago to the day, former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. helped throw a pricey party at the Wilson Building to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Dubbed the “51st State Inaugural Ball,” the fiesta didn’t raise enough money selling $51 tickets to cover its costs (which included a performance by Chuck Brown.) So Thomas raided $110,000 in funds the city had given to the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation for drug prevention programs to make up the difference.
The move helped send Thomas to federal prison. It also cost the former director of the CYITC, Millicent West, her job as the director of the District’s homeland security agency. And it led to Danita Doleman, the head of a nonprofit that Thomas used as a pass-through to pay for the party, pleading guilty to a federal tax charge.
The fallout from Thomas’ use of the CYITC as his own personal piggy bank, as well as stories of the trust benefiting individuals and organizations close to other elected officials, included some prolonged hand-wringing over the CYITC’s future. At one point, then-Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown said he wanted to shut the CYITC down. That didn’t happen, but the general consensuses among the city’s politicos was that the trust needed to be rebuilt in a way that made it less prone to political pressure.
“I do think very strongly that we have to take politics out of the trust,” Robert Bobb, Mayor Vince Gray’s pick to head the CYITC’s board, told the Post last year. (Of course, one might point out that Bobb is no stranger to politics; he’s a former city administrator and school board president whose name is often mentioned as a potential political candidate.)
But Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham appears to want to move in the opposite direction. Graham has asked Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to appoint him as one non-voting member of CYITC’s board, a request Mendelson told LL yesterday he’s agreed to. The council has not appointed one of its own to the board in recent memory, possibly ever. (it was created in 1999.)
As chairman of the council’s human services committee, Graham already has oversight of the entire CYITC. He’s says his appointment to the board would be an extension of that role.
“There are priorities in positive youth development, juvenile rehabilitation, programs for disconnected youth that I want to make sure receive appropriate attention and focus of the board,” Graham emails.”I have 15 years of managing a successful nonprofit (Whitman Walker Clinic) and have experience that can be useful on the trust board. I am familiar with the private sector, foundations, and philanthropic community, relevant to the improving [of] what is now very little in the way of private fund raising.”
Graham also says that he’s pushed for an independent task force to review the board’s current structure, but those efforts have so far been in vain.
In real terms, it’s hard imagining that a nonvoting advisory role on the board would increase Graham’s influence with the CYITC, given that he already has committee oversight. But given Graham’s checkered reputation, the optics don’t look good.
His former chief of staff took cash from a taxi lobbyist while Graham had oversight of the Taxicab commission. Graham is currently being probed by the newly formed Board of Ethics for his behavior as a member of Metro’s board. An independent investigation commissioned by Metro dinged Graham last year for improperly attempting to mix the contract processes for a Metro development and the city’s lucrative lottery operation.
And Graham had a close relationship with the key figure in another high-profile CYITC oversight failure. That story includes CYITC grants awarded to Keely Thompson, a former boxer who set up a gym for troubled youth. Thompson’s been charged with using CYITC funds and other city money on Caribbean cruises and gambling trips to Atlantic City. Graham points out that there’s been no suggestion that he was “inappropriately involved in any way” with Thompson’s troubles. Sure, but over the course of several years,Graham helped Thompson get city funds, some of which the feds say Thompson stole. That at least raises questions about the judgement of someone who wants to play a key role in reforming the very damaged CYITC. After all, it’s not like Graham hardly knew Thompson.
“Please do not forget about me (2 tickets) to the inauguration celebration,” Keely emailed Graham four years ago. Full circle!
Photo by Darrow Montgomery