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What do a $143.71 tab at Hooters, an $84.74 bill at Bed Bath & Beyond, and a $350 payment to a Maryland-based animal trapper have in common?
They’re all charges made during a one-week span in October 2009 on the debit card belonging to Team Thomas, the nonprofit then run by Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. that was supposed to help introduce the District’s youth to golf, baseball, softball, and tennis.
And they’re also expenses that you, if you’re a District taxpayer, might have helped pay for, says Attorney General Irv Nathan.
It’s not just a tasteless restaurant tab, household items, and pest control services from Bowie that seemingly have nothing to do with youth sports and may have been purchased on the public’s dime. Bank records obtained by LL through a Freedom of Information Act request show dozens of unusual expenses on Team Thomas’ debit card from 2007 to 2009, including about $7,500 at golf courses around the country, more than $10,000 worth of golf equipment, and around $5,000 on hotels.
The records show that Team Thomas paid for regular expenses, including phone bills, a $362.33 satellite TV charge, and a subscription to Sports Illustrated. The bank records show charges to Best Buy, Home Depot, and local grocery stores, too.
By now we all know that Thomas, first elected in 2006, is being sued by Nathan for alleged misappropriation of city funds. Nathan says Thomas secretly took a $400,000 earmark for “youth baseball” and spent it mostly on himself, including the purchase of a $69,149.60 Audi SUV. Nathan says some of the earmark money went to Thomas’ for-profit company, HLT Development, and some went to Team Thomas. (The complaint says Team Thomas paid $1,074.40 toward the Audi. HLT Development paid $58,575.20, and Thomas got $9,000 for a trade-in on his Dodge Durango.)
Nathan’s lawsuit, which was filed last month, also says Team Thomas collected about $80,000 from corporate donors with promises of using the money to teach kids about swing sports. But Thomas used much of that money on himself, Nathan says. Team Thomas’ address is Thomas’ home address, and Nathan says the councilmember controlled the nonprofit’s finances, including the debit card used for the spending chronicled here.
Team Thomas was dissolved last year, but Thomas has said its mission of exposing urban youth to swing sports was his “life’s work.” In a fundraising letter to corporate donors, Thomas said Team Thomas’ goal was not just about sports, but to “reach our inner city population and broaden their horizons.” Some of the spending listed in the bank records certainly could have been used for those legitimate purposes, but it’s tough to know without more detailed records or help from Thomas, who declined to comment for this article.
The attorney general’s office offers a brief sampling of how Thomas allegedly misspent Team Thomas’ funds. The complaint lists only 14 items—including $1,073 spent at Pebble Beach Golf Course and $1,185 spent at another golf course in Las Vegas—that Nathan says had nothing to do with promoting youth sports to inner-city youth. But these 14 items, bank records show, are just the tip of the iceberg.
For instance, there’s the $170 Team Thomas charged at a perfume store the day after Christmas (known as “Boxing Day” to LL’s Canadian readers) in 2008. Or the $25.95 spent at Flagship Car Wash. Or the $75 bill at a 7-Eleven on New Year’s Eve. Or the $39.09 bill at Hunan Treasures. Or the $204 cash withdrawal at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas.
Then there’s the golf. Thomas is a big fan of the game and told LL last year that he tries to squeeze in nine holes most mornings. His enthusiasm shows in the bank records, which indicate that Team Thomas’ funds paid for multiple rounds in Florida, South Carolina, Las Vegas, California, and elsewhere.
On Nov. 26, 2007, shortly after Team Thomas held the first of two fundraisers with corporate donors, bank records show it spent $124.99 at a par-3 golf course and driving range in Myrtle Beach, S.C. A few weeks later, Team Thomas purchased a round in Little Rock, Ark., bank records show.
On Jan. 22, 2008, Team Thomas spent $179.14 at the well-known Sawgrass golf course in Jacksonville, Fla. A month later, the organization was racking up expenses in Florida again, this time at two courses, one near Cape Canaveral and one in Orlando. (It was around this time, according to the attorney general’s complaint, that Team Thomas began getting some of the earmarked money.)
In June 2008, the nonprofit spent $204.75 at Old Hickory Golf Club in Woodbridge and $132.03 at East Potomac Golf Course, bank records show. In February 2009, the money trail leads back to Orlando, where Team Thomas spent nearly $100 in one day at a local course.
In mid-April 2009, Team Thomas spent $314.82 at Sawgrass. Two weeks later, the organization was spending money on the other side of the country, in the San Francisco Bay area. It paid $1,072.99 at Pebble Beach, then later that week, spent $108.65 at a course in Oakland and $96.80 at Stonebrae Country Club, in nearby Hayward—on the same day.
The Team Thomas debit card covered much of the travel costs on these trips. In Myrtle Beach, there was a $278.56 tab at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant. In Little Rock, records show a nearly $600 bill at the Peabody Hotel and a $160.27 bill at a steakhouse. LL counts nearly $1,000 spent at Florida hotels while Team Thomas paid for golf outings.
In a news conference last fall, Thomas said he regularly traveled on Team Thomas-related business, such as attending conferences related to youth sports. LL could only find record of one such conference in the debit card records, a $41.29 charge in February 2008 for the Cocoa Expo Sports Center in Cocoa, Fla. Thomas also used Team Thomas funds to pay costs associated with attending a shopping center conference in Las Vegas, one that’s regularly attended by District pols.
Bank records also show Team Thomas spent more than $10,000 on golf equipment, with many of the purchases clocking in at several hundred dollars at stores like the Washington Golf Center in Arlington, Golf Etc., and Adidas’ online golf shop. Buying sports equipment seems like a reasonable expense for a nonprofit that promotes youth sports. But Team Thomas also spent $102.10 at a golf store in Myrtle Beach, and bought a $180 “total game management system” on June 4, 2009, that uses GPS and provides “aerial course mapping” on players’ smart phones.
The nonprofit spent more than $16,000 on equipment for other sports besides golf, records show. Much of the money went to Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Stripe 3, a sporting goods store in College Park. Manager Felix Kim says the Stripe 3 purchases—like kids’ shoes and uniforms—were in keeping with Team Thomas’ mission: “They always seemed like legitimate purchases to me.”
But bank records also show a number of large purchases from an equipment supplier for football, a sport that’s never been on any Team Thomas promotional materials that LL’s seen.
Of course, it would be nice if Thomas would shed some light on these expenses. But he’s been short on details about Team Thomas’ finances since last fall, when his Republican opponent in the general election first started asking questions.
Instead, Thomas has made blanket statements that Team Thomas’ finances have been above board and has asked for patience while his attorney, Fred Cooke Jr., prepares his legal defense. Asked about specific charges in Team Thomas’ bank records, Thomas says he can’t speak while his case is in court. Cooke says he has nothing to say “whatsoever” about the charges. Nathan has said Thomas declined to explain Team Thomas’ finances before the lawsuit was filed.
That silence, though it might be standard etiquette on the golf course, is deafening. If Thomas had a simple and straightforward explanation for how his for-profit and nonprofit acquired and spent money, he surely would have given it by now. If there’s an easy answer for the Hooters bill, the satellite TV, the perfume store, and the many, many golf-related charges, why not give it?
Keeping quiet hasn’t helped Thomas any. Shortly after defiantly proclaiming that he would not step down as chairman of the D.C. Council’s coveted economic development committee, Thomas did just that, once his colleagues made clear they planned to force him out. He’s got no pull; his political power has dried up.
Meanwhile, the rest of the city waits—for Nathan’s lawsuit to move forward, to see who D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown picks as Thomas’ replacement for the economic development committee, and to see if the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which launched its own investigation of Thomas, will bring criminal charges. The city is also waiting on Thomas—waiting for him to explain himself.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery; illustrations by Brooke Hatfield
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