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Give Harry Thomas Jr. some credit :The man can act.
Thomas admitted in federal court last week that he’d been stealing city money almost since he first took office in 2007. That he’s been able to comport himself as though he wasn’t a thief and a tax cheat for the last five years is proof that he can make believe with the best of them. In fact, Thomas’ role playing was so strong that he even toyed with the idea of running for city-wide office and managed outrage when investigations into his extracurricular activities first started.
“This is a very sensitive issue,” Thomas said last November. “My life’s work is being questioned.”
Part of that work was laid bare in a 21-page statement of offense produced by prosecutors that Thomas swore in court was true. It details how Thomas spent his time in office scheming to get kickbacks and using his staff to submit phony documents to cover up his theft.
In total, the feds put Thomas on the hook for $353,500 in stolen city money. (He agreed last summer to repay D.C. $300,000, in a settlement with Attorney General Irv Nathan.) But no man is an island; Thomas certainly didn’t take that much without some help from individuals who knew what was going on or should have known better. U.S. Attorney Ron Machen says his investigation is still ongoing. Here’s a look at the individuals and institutions who may not be guilty of any crimes—or even accused of any—but have been muddied by Thomas’ misdeeds all the same. They include:
The Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation: Any list of groups the Thomas fiasco made look bad has to start with the CYITC. Identified in court records only as “PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP #1,” the CYITC was set up during then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration as a joint venture between private donors and the District government to fund a wide variety of nonprofits aimed at improving the lives of the city’s youth. The last publicly available tax form, from 2009, shows that public funding accounted for 97 percent of the trust’s $18 million budget. The trust is supposed to be an independent entity immune from political pressure. But the Thomas case shows that’s not happened.
Court records show how Thomas was able to direct city money to the fund, then direct the fund to pay three different organizations, which gave Thomas kickbacks.
The first two steps of that scheme were well known long before Thomas pleaded guilty last week. In 2008, the Department of Parks and Recreation, which Thomas oversaw at the time, paid the CYITC for a grant entitled “Councilmember Harry Thomas’ Ward 5 Initiative.” Clark Ray, the former DPR director who oversaw the department at the time, tells LL his department had no say over how the money was spent and was mandated by the council to pass it on to the CYITC.
In 2010, Washington City Paper detailed how Thomas used the CYITC to fund his preferred nonprofits as a way of getting around a new ban on direct council earmarks. (Then-Council Chairman Vince Gray had ordered the ban after Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was caught passing earmarked city money on to his girlfriend.)
In the statement of offense, the feds show that Thomas “directed” the CYITC to fund the three organizations that gave him kickbacks. Indeed, Thomas was so confident in his directing abilities that he promised one organization city money even before being sworn in.
In an affidavit filed in federal court last year unrelated to the Thomas case, an FBI agent puts it bluntly. The CYITC, he writes, along with other agencies, “were used by D.C. Councilmembers as ‘pass-through’ organizations for earmarks.” That case, incidentally, involves allegations that a man running a nonprofit took CYITC money to go gambling in Atlantic City and take Caribbean cruises. The case is awaiting trial.
That brings us back to the CYITC’s inability to monitor how its money was being spent. To get the trust to write a check to Langston 21st Century Foundation, the nonprofit Thomas used to do most of his stealing, all he had to do was submit fake invoices (with no receipts) on Langston’s behalf.
Millicent West: The only CYITC official identified in Thomas’s statement of offense is West, who goes by “Executive #1” in court records. West was director of the CYITC during part of Thomas’ looting spree; she’s now the director of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Court records detail how West helped Thomas acquire $110,000 in CYITC funding to pay for the 51st State Inaugural Ball, which was held at the Wilson Building to celebrate President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
When Thomas tried to get the CYITC to give $110,000 to the D.C. Young Democrats to cover the cost, West advised one of Thomas’ aides to “change the name of the entity that would receive the funds.” A new, unnamed organization wound up with the money, and then a day later wired more than $100,000 to the Young Democrats.
West doesn’t dispute that, but says she was not part of any attempt to intentionally steer the money to the Young Democrats. She says she was told the ball would help young District residents take part in a “celebration of a historic moment,” which she considered a worthy expenditure by the CYITC. “It was a youth ball, was what I was told,” says West. The ball was never billed as a youth-centered party, and online pictures show the event, which started at 10 p.m., packed with adults.
LL can’t decide which would be worse: That West thought paying six digits for one party was a good use of the CYITC’s money, or that she was so easily duped into believing it was a “youth ball.”
ORGANIZATIONS #1, 2, AND 3: As of deadline, LL hadn’t yet identified the group that gave Thomas a $25,000 kickback on a $60,000 grant in summer of 2007. Ditto for organization #3, which gave Thomas a $5,000 kickback on a $10,000 grant in 2009, and also acted as a pass-through for Thomas to use city money to pay for the 51st State ball. We already knew from Nathan’s lawsuit that ORGANIZATION #2 is the Langston 21st Century Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with Langston Golf Course that Thomas used frequently. Its principals, Jimmy Garvin and Marshall Banks, cooperated in Nathan’s investigation and have agreed to repay the city $86,000.
Ayawna Chase: Thomas’ former chief of staff and chairman of the D.C. Young Democrats, Chase is referred to as “Staffer #2” in court records. She paid Thomas, at his direction, $7,500 to reimburse him for “advance payment” he’d made to “secure entertainment” (Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown played there) for the 51st State Inaugural Ball. Chase could not be reached for comment.
D.C. Young Democrats: Known as “POLITICAL ORGANIZATION #1” in court records, the Young Dems need to explain why they didn’t think something was amiss when they got a $100,000 wire payment from “ORGANIZATION #3” to pay for the 51st Inaugural Ball. Court records show that the pass-through group had nothing to do with the ball. Eric Jones, who was executive vice-president during this period, says Chase hid the payments from the group. He said there were no records in the group’s accounting that he was aware of that showed the group paying for and receiving payments for the 51st State Inaugural Ball. “It’s flabbergasting,” says Jones. “We had no way of knowing.”
Neil Rodgers: Thomas’ former committee clerk was fired Friday from his current job as an aide to Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown. Rodgers, referred to as “STAFFER #1” in court records, is portrayed as Thomas’ go-to guy when the CYITC needed to be lobbied or pressured to cut checks. Court records also show Rodgers submitted phony budget reports to the CYITC at Thomas’ “direction.” The big question: What did Rodgers know of Thomas’ illegal behavior? Rodgers’ attorney, A. Scott Bolden, has said his client is viewed as a witness, not a target, by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells: Wells oversaw the CYITC during Thomas’ stealing spree. He deserves credit for predicting the debacle and trying to head it off. At a hearing in 2010, Wells warned the CYITC’s staff they would “end up on the front page of the Post” if they allowed themselves to be used as a pass-through by one of his colleagues. Wells says the reporting requirements he foisted on the CYITC in 2007 forced Thomas to submit fraudulent documents that created the paper trail that helped prosecutors catch him, and that the competitive bidding he required put an end to Thomas’ stealing. But Wells mistakenly believes that it was those reforms that led to Thomas’ downfall, rather than outside forces. And the fact that Nathan forced the CYITC in December to implement even more stringent reporting requirements indicates that Wells could have pushed even harder.
Mayor Vince Gray: Gray ran the D.C. Council while Thomas was stealing. As City Paper detailed in 2010, Gray knew full well that Thomas was using the CYITC to get around the ban on earmarks, but turned a blind eye. The bigger problem for the mayor, though, is that the Thomas saga reinforces the narrative that’s plagued Gray from the start: It takes him far too long to cut ties with people who demonstrate that they don’t deserve loyalty anymore. Just like the campaign aides who led to the Sulaimon Brown affair, or the administration officials who embarrassed Gray with high salaries and nepotism early last year, Thomas is another example of someone Gray stood by for too long.
“As Council Chair, I banned earmarks to prevent even the appearance of impropriety,” Gray said in a statement after Thomas pleaded guilty. “It never occurred to me that one of my colleagues on the council would steal government money.” But it probably should have occurred to Gray that Thomas might be a thief many months ago when Nathan—who Gray had appointed—got the settlement last summer.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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