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Are federal prosecutors alleging that TV’s Laura Winslow—you know, Urkel’s love interest—gave disgraced former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. a $25,000 kickback on a grant from the city?
An examination of court records, tax filings, and emails obtained through several Freedom of Information Act requests raises the question of whether Kellie Williams, the actress who played Laura Winslow, is the unnamed “INDIVIDUAL #1” who prosecutors say in court records used a youth arts program to help Thomas steal city money.
In total, Thomas stole more than $350,000 by funneling the cash first through the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation—a city-funded nonprofit—and then to three different organizations, which shuffled money back to him. Aiding Thomas in his crimes, court papers say, were four unnamed heads of those organizations. Listed in court records, they are INDIVIDUAL #1 through INDIVIDUAL #4. Since Thomas’ guilty plea, INDIVIDUALs #2, #3, and #4 have all pleaded guilty for their roles in helping Thomas steal.
Left unaccounted for, so far, is INDIVIDUAL #1, who Thomas swore in court gave him a $25,000 kickback on a grant from the CYITC. Prosecutors left some clues in court filings about INDIVIDUAL #1’s identity, including a $60,000 payment from the CYITC to the individual on July 18, 2007, and a $120,000 grant from the Department of Parks and Recreation that Thomas suggested the individual’s organization get in 2008.
There’s no definitive proof in the court records, tax filings, and emails LL obtained that INDIVIDUAL #1 is Williams. But let LL walk you through the evidence, dear readers, so you can judge for yourselves.
Williams is a Washington-area native who returned to the region after her show Family Matters ended 1998. She started a youth arts training group called Kellie Williams Programs that offered summer courses. (The program looks to have been dormant since 2008; Williams got married in 2009 and started a family.) LL spoke with Williams briefly in March. When LL mentioned Thomas, Williams said she was on the other line and would call back. She didn’t, and hasn’t returned more than a dozen phone calls since then to her house in Prince George’s County. Several emails have also gone unanswered. It’s unknown if she has a lawyer.
The first possible connection to Williams is a $120,000 grant Thomas pushed for. In court records filed in April, just before Thomas’ sentencing, federal prosecutors said Thomas tried to secure $120,000 for INDIVIDUAL #1 in summer 2008. Court records say Thomas’ plan was to transfer funds from DPR to the CYITC to “Harry Thomas’ Ward 5 Initiative,” which was in part a response to the outbreak of violence in the Trinidad neighborhood that year.
In May 2008, Thomas’ office sent a request to DPR for the groups it wanted funded, including $120,000 for INDIVIDUAL #1’s group, according to prosecutors. Through the Freedom of Information Act, LL obtained a June 19, 2008, email from Ellen London, who headed the CYITC’s government relations efforts then and was later named to—and recently fired from—a post as the group’s CEO, to Thomas aide Neil Rodgers, who was Thomas’ point man on matters related to CYITC grants. “We received funds from DPR for five programs at Ward 5 rec centers,” London wrote, listing four groups who were to receive between $39,000 and $55,000. London wrote that the fifth group, Kellie Williams Programs, was to receive $120,000—the exact figure prosecutors say Thomas requested for INDIVIDUAL #1.
And court papers filed by prosecutors in January say the CYITC issued INDIVIDUAL #1 a $60,000 check on July 18, 2007. The court records say Thomas immediately got a $15,000 cut, and then an additional $10,000 the next day. He used the money for his “personal benefit,” court records say.
CYITC usually gives to organizations, not individuals. But in this case, it gave the money to Williams directly, not to a nonprofit group. In tax records the CYITC filed for 2007, the organization lists its grant recipients, including individuals. The only individual grantee who received anywhere near $60,000 is Williams, who is listed as getting $70,000. No other individual is listed as receiving more than $30,000.
Emails obtained through the FOIA request show that Williams was almost certainly paid on July 18, 2007, the same day mentioned in court records. A series of emails from July 17 show there was some confusion between Thomas’ office, the CYITC, and the parks department, where the funding originated, about paying Williams. A parks department lawyer asked if the “amount for Kellie Williams” was $25,000, $45,000, or $70,000.
“Please call me—this ongoing confusion is killing me. I’m going to be in very hot water,” London wrote to Rodgers after receiving the lawyer’s note.
Things must have been resolved, because at 7 p.m. that night, London wrote that all was squared away and the checks were ready to be picked up (there were other grantees besides Williams Thomas wanted funded). The next day, July 18—when court records say INDIVIDUAL #1 got the check—London wrote that all the checks were out the door. “Mission Accomplished,” she wrote.
London also explained that not all of the grant was going to be in the first payment. Does that help explain why Williams was listed in the CYITC tax records as getting $70,000, even though prosecutors say INDIVIDUAL #1 got only $60,000? “We will grant our 90% upon signing the grant agreement, and 10% upon completion of a simple final report (services provided, numbers served, highlights etc.),” London wrote to Rodgers two days before the first check was issued in July 2007. Thomas was kept in the loop of this development. “Thanks,” Thomas responded from his Blackberry.
A few weeks after that, London wrote to an employee of Williams’ to say the “final checks” would be ready in a few weeks. Tax records don’t say when Williams was paid in 2007 or how many payments she received, only that the final amount was $70,000.
Again, none of these records make it absolutely certain that Williams is INDIVIDUAL #1. The CYITC’s tax records for 2008 don’t show Williams being paid $120,000. But they do show a $120,000 payment to Prosperity Media, a D.C.-based nonprofit that partnered with Kellie Williams Programs. (On its old website, Kellie Williams Programs asks potential donors to write checks to Prosperity Media with a note on the check’s memo line saying that the money is for Kellie Williams Programs.) Also, the math on the 2007 payment isn’t precise: $60,000 is only 86 percent of $70,000, not 90 percent.
Still, there are some other possible clues.
Court records say INDIVIDUAL #1’s organization was a “for-profit organization” that “conducted arts-oriented youth programs.” This is also significant, as the CYITC usually gives money to nonprofits, not for-profits. Williams’ organization fits the court records’ description: There’s no record in business filings or IRS databases of Kellie Williams running a registered nonprofit. (The lack of nonprofit status likely explains the partnership with Prosperity Media.) And on its website, Kellie Williams Programs says it offers youth activities in “Theatre, Music, Visual Arts, and Dance,” which certainly sound “arts-oriented.”
Court records also say Thomas met with INDIVIDUAL #1 to talk about a summer arts program before he was even sworn in, and told the person shortly after taking office in 2007 that he’d be able to get some money. Emails from Williams’ staffer to Rodgers discussing funding for the program line up with the court records’ timeline, showing that the program sought funds in 2006 and discussions with Thomas’ office starting the first days after he was sworn in. In March 2007, Rodgers sent Williams’ aide a note saying: “Councilmember has secured funding.”
The question LL couldn’t persuade federal prosecutors to answer, of course, is whether all that will that lead to an appearance in court for Williams. So as they say in the TV business, stay tuned.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
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