Anyone looking for resolution in the settlement between Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. and the D.C. attorney general last week was probably as disappointed as LL was when he slogged through the last season of Lost.
Thomas agreed to pay the District back $300,000 from an earmark for youth baseball programs that Attorney General Irv Nathan alleged Thomas steered to himself. (Nathan says Thomas’ nonprofit then spent the money on an Audi SUV, golf trips, and dinner at Hooters, among other expenses.) Settlement notwithstanding, Thomas maintained that he had not purposefully misspent any city money.
The only problem, Thomas said in a statement, was that “the discipline and strenuous rigors that I teach through coaching and mentoring were lacking in the management of the organization.” (Never mind that there were two organizations controlled by Thomas that received city money, according to Nathan.)
That flimsy excuse has been enough to satisfy some of Thomas’ colleagues on the council, while three others have called on him to resign.
Thomas, of course, isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is currently investigating his behavior, and one of the most common guessing games in D.C. political circles is whether and when criminal charges will come down the pike.
The threat of a federal prosecution is apparently too much to bear alone for the ubiquitous Fred Cooke Jr., who in addition to representing Thomas also represents Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown and is Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s go-to attorney. Thomas beefed up his legal team by hiring star defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, whose high-profile clients include numerous senators and congressmen (and, during his impeachment, President Bill Clinton), disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Steven Seagal, star of Under Siege.
We should all be so fortunate to afford such excellent legal representation. But it turns out Thomas isn’t lucky—he’s just another elected official able to take advantage of the District’s weak laws, which allow unnamed donors to give unlimited amounts outside the campaign finance system. Earlier this week, The Examiner reported Cooke was in the process of setting up a legal defense fund for Thomas that would be run by an anonymous trustee. Lobbyist and Thomas confidante John Ray said he’ll help raise money for the fund. This means people with business before the city could be helping Thomas pay back what he owes and cover his legal bills.
After all, fancy pants lawyers like Lowell don’t come cheap. And the $300,000 that Thomas has to pay back over two-and-a-half years is nothing to sneeze at, either. On Friday, the same day the settlement was finalized, Thomas had to turn over $50,000 to the D.C. Treasurer. But the check didn’t come from Thomas himself. The remitter on the check, according to the Office of the Attorney General, was Cooke’s law firm.
Details of the legal defense fund are still sketchy at this point. Cooke didn’t return multiple calls for comment. LL played phone tag with Ray. And when asked whether he’ll be using a legal defense fund to pay the city its $300,000, Thomas said, “I’m not making any comments.”
Long-time District political watchers couldn’t recall any other beleaguered pol setting up such a fund. (Neither Brown, under investigation for campaign finance irregularities, nor Mayor Vince Gray, who has retained another high-profile lawyer, Robert Bennett, to deal with the federal probe of mayoral hiring practices, has a legal defense fund.) And no one seems totally sure how it would jibe with reporting requirements at the Office of Campaign Finance, which require councilmembers to report any gifts they receive over $100.
“It’s unchartered waters,” says Donald Dinan, a lawyer who has represented several councilmembers before OCF. “The D.C. code and the regulations do not specifically address it.”
Dinan says he thinks such contributions ought to be reported to OCF, but acknowledges there are plenty of lawyers who could make a strong argument otherwise. (Which is, after all, why you hire lawyers.)
“The only reason that anyone would give money to such a fund is because they’re trying to curry favor with the guy…and that’s why it should be reported,” Dinan says.
The closest parallel to Thomas’ legal defense fund LL could find was a 2003 shindig with 50 or so D.C. powerbrokers that raised money for Barry, who was broke at the time. The event was held a year before Barry kicked off his campaign for Ward 8’s D.C. Council seat, and the money was put in a fund and managed by trustees. Barry said then he didn’t know who gave what.
Thomas, who makes $125,583 a year as a councilmember, isn’t broke. But he’s had enough financial struggles to make people wonder where he’s going to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars (Team Thomas’ financial records make pretty clear the money’s all been spent). He’s being sued by the federal government for not paying $16,000 related to student loan expenses, and the Woodridge Place Housing Association filed a $2,563.50 lien on Thomas’ home in 2007.
Financial problems aside, the prospect of Thomas relying on unnamed donors giving untold amounts to pay off his debts isn’t making his critics happy.
“It’s disturbing, to say the least,” says D.C. GOP Executive Director Paul Craney, who says he hopes public disclosure of the legal defense fund will “provoke” the prosecutors into speedy action. “I mean, justice needs to be served, and this is not justice.”
But Nathan, the attorney general, says he doesn’t care who pays Thomas’ legal fees—or the settlement money. A provision in the settlement prohibits Thomas from participating in a charitable organization for five years, but Nathan says that has nothing to do with any legal defense fund.
If people want to donate to pay off the remaining $250,000 tab, and their donations are all legal, “then yes, of course, he could use the funds for that purpose, too.”
Thomas may be setting up the first legal defense fund Wilson Building wags can remember, but he’s hardly the first D.C. politician to venture into the world of murky accounts with few limits and less reporting. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams, who traveled abroad frequently, would have undisclosed business interests pay into a fund to cover his wife’s travel costs.
More recently, Gray and Brown refused public funding and relied on private donors to cover transition costs for their new posts. Both promised transparency about who donated and how that money was spent; both, so far, have failed to uphold that promise.
Of course, it’s one thing to donate to inaugurations, trips abroad, or even youth sports programs. But it’s another story to donate to a politician who could be a dead man walking. Only Thomas’ most loyal donors will likely be giving, and they’ll be making a bet that Thomas’s political career can survive this ordeal. Other big money players may sit back, at least until the criminal investigation is resolved.
“I don’t think it’s going to raise a lot of money,” says lobbyist David Carmen, whose firm donated $1,000 to Thomas’ Team Thomas nonprofit—the group that first got the attorney general’s office investigating—but has no plans to donate to a legal defense fund. “It replicates the impression the councilmember is already trying to dispel.”
Ah, if only good impressions paid the bills.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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