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Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Former D.C. Department of Employment Services employee Rhayda Barnes Thomas was arrested this week after she was indicted for embezzling up to $350,000 from D.C.’s Project Empowerment program. Barnes Thomas was a graduate of the program, which helps provide jobs for homeless people and those returning home from prison, and was later hired by the agency.

But her arrest is only the latest chapter in what has been more than a decade-long saga of theft, fraud, and second (and third) chances.

In 2011, Barnes Thomas was sentenced to 27 months in prison for stealing federal funds from the Charles County, Maryland, public school system while she was an administrator there. Prosecutors said she bought $100,000 worth of video games, iPods, cameras, and other electronics.

Then in 2014, after she graduated from Project Empowerment, DOES hired her as a program assistant. The agency put her in charge of entering participants’ work time, and she was given access to the timekeeping database. But by the spring of 2018, DOES fired her and referred accusations that she had again stolen taxpayer funds to the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and a grand jury issued an indictment on Sept. 29 for an embezzlement scheme that Barnes Thomas is alleged to have engaged in from May 2015 to April 2018.

But as the investigation crawled along for the past four years, Barnes Thomas was hired by another D.C. government agency. Salary records show that by December 2019 Barnes Thomas was working as a “staff assistant” for the Child and Family Services Agency making $60,522 (though her name is listed as “Rhayda Thomas-Barnes”). An org chart for CFSA dated May 2020 lists “Rhayda Thomas Barnes” as an assistant to the chief information officer, Marina Haven. By March of 2021, “Thomas Barnes” was promoted to a program specialist, and as of December 2021, the most recent salary spreadsheet posted online, she was making just over $71,000 a year. A CFSA spokesperson declined to comment.

According to the indictment, Barnes Thomas fraudulently entered time for 16 former Project Empowerment participants to show that they were working at a local nonprofit when they were not. She also ordered prepaid debit cards (the method of payment for Project Empowerment participants), set up P.O. boxes to receive them, and withdrew the funds from ATMs in D.C. and Maryland.

Barnes Thomas also created a fake Gmail account posing as another former employee of the nonprofit to correspond with herself through her D.C. government email, the indictment says. All told, prosecutors estimate that Barnes Thomas made off with about $315,000 to $350,000.

Court records show that she pleaded not guilty to all charges, and her attorney, Dwight Crawley, declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday.

Through a spokesperson, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes declined to comment on the matter due to the pending criminal case. DOES Communications Director Diane Watkins could not say whose decision it was to hire Barnes Thomas in 2014 or describe the kind of vetting she went through. Watkins did not know whether the agency has recouped any of the stolen funds, or if it can.

About a month before the indictment dropped, Morris-Hughes announced that Deputy Director Charles Jones, who oversees Project Empowerment, would be leaving the agency after more than 20 years. An agency-wide email from Morris-Hughes to DOES staff says Jones will remain with the agency until Oct. 28, and Michael Watts will replace him as interim deputy director. When initially asked whether Jones’ departure and Barnes Thomas’ indictment are related, Watkins said Jones was still working for DOES and was unaware of his departure. In a follow-up phone call, she said the two events are not related and Jones is retiring. Later, Watkins reached out again to say that Jones is not retiring. He is instead “departing District government to pursue other professional opportunities.”