A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that council member Harry Thomas Jr. has three weeks to comply with a subpoena from Attorney General Peter Nickles for documents related to a charitable organization that has so far operated largely out of public view.
In his ruling, Judge Bruce D. Beaudin raised concerns about both Thomas's efforts to resist the subpoena and Nickles's push to pursue it hours before Tuesday's election.
After the court was forced into the increasingly nasty power struggle between Nickles and Thomas (D-Ward 5), Beaudin rebuffed a request by city attorneys that the first-term council member immediately turn over the information related to Team Thomas, established in 2000 to provide grants to youths and community-based organizations in Northeast Washington.
Beaudin, who questioned whether Nickles's investigation was politically motivated, affirmed that the attorney general's office has the right to investigate how the organization was constituted but gave Thomas until Nov. 23 to turn over the information.
"I just want to keep it out of the political arena," Beaudin said. "But I think it should be looked at."
Thomas's attorney, Frederick D. Cooke, said after the hearing that the information requested may be released as soon as the end of the week. Thomas was widely expected to win reelection to his ward seat Tuesday. But the questions about Team Thomas come amid signs that the council member, a close ally of presumptive mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), could be gearing up to run in a special election this spring for the at-large council seat being vacated by Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) when he becomes council chair.
Thomas's nonprofit isn't registered with the Internal Revenue Service or in good standing with city regulators, causing some of Thomas's critics to question who was funding it and how the money had been distributed. But Nickles's decision to launch an investigation has reopened longstanding divisions between his office and the council, prompting allegations that the attorney general was politicizing his office to try to harm one of his chief critics.
After Thomas failed to meet a deadline Nickles set for the voluntarily release of the information, a subpoena was issued giving the council member until Friday to hand over information about Team Thomas's donations, the salaries of its employees and its expenses. When Thomas failed to comply, Nickles asked the court Monday for "immediate enforcement" of the subpoena.
According to documents unearthed by Thomas's GOP opponent, Tim Day, the council member has used his official stationery to promote fundraising groups for the organization, which he billed on his Web site as a "non-profit."
Last year, however, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs revoked Team Thomas's license. And because Team Thomas is not registered with the IRS as a 501-C-3, there has been no public accounting of its finances.
"This is our job, making sure there are not fake nonprofits," Bennett Rushkoff, chief of the Public Advocacy Section for the attorney general's office, told Beaudin at the hearing. He also warned that Thomas's efforts to resist the subpoena could embolden others to "not respond" to legally binding information requests as a "vehicle for delay."
Cooke stressed that Thomas had always planned to make the information about the organization's finances public. But Cooke accused Nickles of engaging in "blatant retribution" by demanding that he turn over the information so quickly.
"We refuse to be bullied by the attorney general," Cooke said, noting that Nickles was pressing to get the information before Election Day. "We refuse to be used as a political pawn by the attorney general."
Cooke conceded that Nickles may have the "authority" to launch a probe under the city's Charitable Organizations law. But Cooke, who served in the office in the late 1980s when it was known as the Counsel Council, said it was an unprecedented use of power.
Gray, who called Thomas a "dear friend" at a Young Democrats town hall meeting Monday, also raised concerns about the timing of the probe, accusing Nickles of having a double standard when it came to the quick release of information.
"What's the rush?" Gray asked Monday, noting that Nickles frequently refused to hand over information to the council when it was investigating Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration. "It would seem to me it would be wise for Mr. Nickles to wait until this election is over with, and then deal with this."
Beaudin agreed, pointedly asking Rushkoff "what's so important" about forcing Thomas to immediately release the information.
"Why did we have to do this (hearing) at 9 a.m. as opposed to two days from now?" Beaudin asked. He later added, "There are a lot of suspicious things going on."
-- Tim Craig