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Posted at 04:56 PM ET, 06/08/2011

Thomas allegations ring familiar in annals of political corruption


Harry Thomas Jr. talks to the media outside the John A. Wilson Building on Monday. (By Matt McClain for The Washington Post)
As D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) vows to fight charges that he used hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer and charity funds for his personal purposes, he joins a legion of politicians accused of enriching themselves in similar ways.

Thomas on Monday declined to address specific charges leveled by Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan — including that he diverted some $300,000 in city funds intended for “youth baseball” and illicitly used an additional $80,000 in charitable contributions. But he says that he will provide proof and be vindicated.

The form of Thomas’s alleged corruption is nothing new for elected officials across the country. If there’s anything novel, it’s that Thomas stands accused of a combination of two sadly common scams: (a) a classic “kickback” arrangement, where a public official intervenes to direct public funds to some outside entity, which then secretly pays the official out of the public funds, and (b) where an official establishes a nonprofit group to collect donations for a purported charity, then uses the funds for personal purposes.

The former arrangement has a long, sordid history — though it takes a certain bravado to demand a 75 percent kickback, as Nathan’s lawsuit alleges.

The latter arrangement has been rather popular of late. For instance, federal authorities last year indicted former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for spending about $2.5 million in funds donated to his Kilpatrick Civic Fund on personal expenses — including “yoga and golf lessons, golf clubs, summer camp for his children, personal travel, moving expenses, car rentals and leases of cars, and a personal residence.” In 2008, federal authorities indicted two New York City Council aides for embezzling earmarked funds, one via a nonprofit organization.

Note that most of the cash Thomas is alleged to have pocketed was paid not to his Team Thomas charity, but to HLT Team Thomas/Swingaway, a for-profit company. There’s a precedent there, as well: New York State Assemblyman Anthony S. Seminerio in 2008 pleaded guilty to accepting an almost $1 million payment to his “consulting firm” in return for legislative favors. He died in prison.

By  |  04:56 PM ET, 06/08/2011

 
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