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The District’s rowdy Republican Party is asking the city’s Office of Campaign Finance to force Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. to disclose who donated to his youth sports non-profit and how that money was spent.
If the request sounds familiar, it’s because Attorney General Peter Nickles is seeking the very same info about the non-profit, named Team Thomas.
The D.C. GOP notes, as LL and other journalists have, that Thomas has never disclosed any conflict of interests in his yearly disclosure forms since taking office. But we know from the Post‘s editorial page’s reporting and HTJ’s own news conference that companies doing business with the city were either donating directly to Team Thomas or sponsoring one of its events. Thomas’ attorney Fred Cooke Jr. says Thomas never personally benefited from any of these donations, so he wouldn’t have to disclose donations on his financial disclosure forms.
Maybe that’s legally correct, but it sure exposes one giant blindspot in the public’s ability to find out how the money flows to elected officials and their pet causes.
Look at it from a donor’s point of view: Say you happen to be itching to get in good with Harry Thomas Jr. Would you rather a) donate a limited amount to his political campaign, which has to be disclosed to the public? Or b) write as big a check as you want to Team Thomas, without worrying about anyone else knowing? And don’t forget, there won’t be disclosure of how Team Thomas spends that money, as there would be for a campaign donation. So if Thomas happens to use that money to go to Vegas to talk sports equipment (as the councilmember has said he’s spent some of the Team Thomas funds), so much the better—as long as he remembers who bought the ticket.
The problem isn’t limited to Team Thomas. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry gets to give away Thanksgiving turkeys to his constituents in his name (the literal title: “Councilmember Marion Barry’s Ward 8 Turkey Giveaway”), while having unnamed donors foot the bill. Barry declined to tell the Post who this year’s donors were, saying only that “They do it because they want to give, not for publicity.” Maybe, or maybe they give because they want Barry’s help landing a city contract. There’s no way of knowing.
To their credits, both Almost Mayor Vince Gray and Almost Council Chairman Kwame Brown have pledged to release all the names of donors to their transition funds. They also set maximum donation limits. But these measures were voluntary; the Office of Campaign Finance said they’ve got nothing to do with transition finances.
LL has a hunch the OCF is going to say the same thing to the GOP about Team Thomas. Which raises the question: Are the District’s financial disclosure regulations a complete joke?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery