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If you lived in the District in 2003 and were serious about improving your baseball or softball swing, you might have stumbled upon fliers for six-and-a-half hour lessons at $350 a pop for an individual, or $700 for a team. Promising unparalleled, high-tech instruction, the lessons included time on the “SwingAway training machine”—which is basically a ball suspended from a string, that you hit into a net—and a “SwingAway interactive CD-ROM.”
“Hit like a pro!” the flier read. “Get Good!”
If you weren’t that into baseball, but were looking for something to keep your kid busy, the other side of the flier advertised free clinics for tykes and a $75 spring break camp.
The organization behind those clinics, lessons and camps: Team Thomas.
Regular observers of D.C. politics already know that Team Thomas is Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr.’s non-profit group, which has run into a spell of trouble. The basic problem is this: Councilmember Thomas was running the non-profit while also serving in office, taking in unreported donations from a variety of companies that do business with the city. The organization raised more than $200,000 since 2008, but so far the public has few clues as to who gave what or how that money was spent.
Then-Attorney General Peter Nickles launched an investigation of Team Thomas in October, dragging Thomas into court twice to get subpoenas for records enforced, and has accused the organization of soliciting funds without a license. On top of that, The Washington Post’s editorial page has devoted its considerable investigative talents to unearthing unsavory details about Team Thomas, including some dirt on a couple of companies who gave the group money.
And last week The Washington Times piled on with a report that developer Keith Forney had donated to Team Thomas, and community groups were concerned Thomas was turning a deaf ear to their concerns about Forney’s strip club. The story also had allegations from an unnamed campaign worker that developers used Team Thomas as a vehicle to circumvent campaign finance laws.
Thomas has strongly defended the work of Team Thomas, calling it his “life’s work,” and casting his critics as politically motivated misanthropes. But he’s also been promising to release details about the non-profit since October, and doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to fulfill that promise. Meanwhile, the powers-that-be have rewarded Thomas with leadership of the council’s Committee on Economic Development.
Thomas has also been silent about the other Team Thomas, a for-profit venture that records show splits its time between giving free and expensive baseball lessons, supplying the city with baseball equipment, and providing catering, consulting, campaign materials, and computer services to Thomas’ political campaigns. And like the non-profit version of Team Thomas, the for-profit entity also raises lots of questions about its conduct.
The for-profit officially began life on Nov. 11, 2004, when Thomas registered HLT Team Thomas/SwingAway LLC with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. HLT are Thomas’ initials. The only problem is that the entity, which also goes by HLT Development, had already been awarded at least $75,000 worth of contracts from the city’s parks department before it was registered, city procurement records show. Those contracts included a $25,000 contract for clothing and equipment for coaches, referees and umpires; $24,236.50 for “baseball equipment”; and another $24,975 for “sports professional services.”
In 2005, Team Thomas/SwingAway brought in an additional $75,000 in city funds and partnered with the parks department to put out a coaches’ training manual. The manual included such sage advice as, “We must develop healthy reveries and view our opponents as positive giving them the respect that we all expect and deserve.”
The manual had a $10 price tag and lists Thomas’ e-mail address as “email@example.com.” SwingAway is a Texas-based company that makes the aforementioned training tool involving a ball suspended on a string. A representative says the company was sold a few years ago; she didn’t know if Thomas had been a distributor for the previous owner. On the fliers promoting Thomas’ baseball instruction and free clinics, there was also a logo for another Thomas enterprise called “Focusgear,” a now-defunct website that sold athletic gear.
But HLT Development, or Team Thomas/SwingAway LLC if you prefer, wasn’t just about improving baseball swings or selling athletic gear. In 2006, the same year HLT Development received nearly $75,000 from the parks department for “professional services,” Thomas’ political campaign committee paid HLT Development $9,000 for catering, campaign materials, and repaying loans.
The Team Thomas brand was also on display during Thomas’ campaign. A 2006 Post story reported that Thomas and a group of teenagers participating in one of his clinics crashed a inspirational speech by a star of CSI: NY organized by one of Thomas’ political opponents. The teenagers were initially barred entry to the affair because they were wearing black mesh jerseys with the words “Team Thomas.”
The non-profit version of Team Thomas was registered with DCRA as a “domestic non-profit,” while the for-profit version was registered as a domestic LLC, but it’s not clear that the councilmember sees a difference between the two entities. At a November news conference he held to defend the non-profit version of Team Thomas, Thomas distributed the aforementioned flier and instruction manual covered in Team Thomas/SwingAway labels to reporters to give them a clearer idea of what Team Thomas was all about—even though those manuals and fliers were promoting a project of the for-profit organization. And when the attorney general’s office asked Thomas to describe what Team Thomas does, Thomas answered in a letter that Team Thomas/SwingAway is a “non-profit urban youth program that introduces boys and girls to swing sports.” (Thomas never bothered to register the non-profit entity with the Internal Revenue Service, so donations to it are not tax-deductible; he says he never claimed it was tax exempt.)
When LL tried to clarify with Thomas, he referred questions to his attorney Fred Cooke Jr., who did not respond to LL’s calls. Thomas did tell LL that “HLT is not the subject of any discussion that I’ve been involved in.”
A lack of distinction between the for-profit and the non-profit Team Thomases may be a problem. The Post editorial board first reported that the for-profit Team Thomas had its license revoked by DCRA in 2007, but it was listed in 2008 as the owner of a $60,000 Audi SUV, which a year later was transferred to Thomas (the person, not the team).
Also in 2008, campaign records show the Metropolitan Washington PAC, which represents landlords around town, transferred $150 to the for-profit Team Thomas. And last year, Thomas’ re-election campaign paid HLT Development $2,500 last year for “computer expenses.”
LL is no lawyer, but pulling in city contracts before you get a business license, then having that same business pull in money from political campaigns after its license has been revoked, doesn’t sound like a good plan. It might just be a case of sloppy paperwork, but coupled with the questions about the non-profit version of Team Thomas, LL would say Thomas has got some (more) explaining to do.
THE LEASE IS TOO DAMN HIGH
Readers with access to electricity may have seen on LL’s blog the news that taxpayers are paying nearly $4,000 a month so that Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown can ride around in luxury Lincoln Navigators. To his credit, Brown said he was “appalled” when he learned of the cost, and has pledged to look into whether the city can get out of that $2,000-a-month lease.
Meanwhile, Gray’s camp raised its hands, said it was the police department’s responsibility to lease mayoral rides, and pointed out that previous mayors had enjoyed the same perk. With a city’s facing a $600 million budget gap, steep cuts to services and potential tax increases, LL asks you, sweet reader, who looked more in touch with the political zeitgeist in their response.
Obviously, LL doesn’t expect Gray to be poring over every contract personally. But it would sure be nice, in these times of tight budgets, if someone at the top got District employees in the mindset that expensive car leases might be worth a second glance. Even if the SUVs are, as the contracts specify, “fully loaded.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery