Federal prosecutors have charged D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. with felony counts of theft and filing false tax returns. The charges were presented in a criminal information, a type of document that requires the consent of the accused, indicating Thomas will almost certainly plead guilty. Officials tell the Washington Post’s Del Quentin Wilber that Thomas could appear in court Friday to finalize the plea.
That might not necessarily mean the immediate end of Thomas’s term as Ward 5 council member.
Thomas’s resignation from office could be part of a plea deal. It is rare, but not unheard of, for federal prosecutors to require the resignation of a public official in public corruption cases.
But there is also the possibility that resignation would not be part of a plea deal. In that case, Thomas could remain in office until incarcerated. That is not unprecedented: Prince George’s County Council member Leslie Johnson remained in office for a time last summer after pleading guilty to destroying evidence; under Maryland law, she would not have been forced from office until her sentencing, but she bowed to pressure and resigned after about a month.
Under current District law, a sitting official convicted of a crime is removed from office only when incarcerated for a felony, when he or she is disqualified from voting.
The new ethics package recently passed by the D.C. Council includes a provision to immediately expel members who have been convicted of felony offenses. However, that provision requires a change to the District charter, requiring a voter referendum that would not come until November at the earliest, or an act of Congress, which could take even longer.
More interesting questions would be raised if Thomas wants to maintain the possibility of again running for office after completing his prison term. Should the charter amendment contemplated in the ethics bill succeed, a person would be eligible for council office only if he or she “has not been convicted of a felony while holding the office.” How that might apply to Thomas’s circumstances is not a simple legal question. But to keep that option open, Thomas might consider resigning his office before entering his plea.
Then there is the process of replacing Thomas. Under city law, a special election must be held on the first Tuesday at least 114 days after a vacancy is declared. There is no provision for an interim appointment for ward council members.
If Thomas resigns in the coming days, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics would have five days to declare a vacancy, which would likely happen at its regularly scheduled meeting next Wednesday. A special election in that case would take place on May 8.
Should Thomas delay his resignation for some time — placing the special election date within 60 days of Nov. 6 — the Ward 5 seat could be included on the general election ballot. Alysoun McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the board, said the board could have the discretion to move the special election to coincide with the April 3 primary, but it is almost certainly too late to do so now given the time necessary to allow candidates to organize and also to print paper ballots.
As DCist noted Wednesday, a special election will be costly. McLaughlin declined to cite an exact figure, but an August 2007 special election for a Ward 1 State Board of Education seat cost about $250,000; a May 2007 special election for Council seats in two wards cost about $750,000.
Here is the charging document filed today by prosecutors: