A follow-up to my coverage of the Harry Thomas Jr. plea aftermath and what it means for the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., the quasi-public nonprofit Thomas used to steer the funds he admitted to stealing: D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) stands up for the Trust in a Post op-ed:
[Thomas]’s theft of more than $300,000 in city funds that were intended to help children was an outrageous and despicable act. But it does not justify disbanding the [Trust].
Instead, Mr. Thomas’s embezzlement of grant dollars through intermediaries for his personal use spotlights the urgent need for a leadership change at the trust and for a full review by the mayor and D.C. Council of the qualifications of the trust’s board of directors and president. And we need to make sure future appointees fulfill their responsibilities to strictly control the program’s funds.
To be sure, there are political motives at play here in addition to the policy imperatives. Wells had legislative oversight of the Trust at the time that Thomas was looting its funds; he has gone to some length, in an interview with me and in the op-ed, to show that he wasn’t asleep at the switch.
Wells and staff, in fact, have prepared transcripts of oversight hearings where he questioned Trust officials about their granting practices, particularly as they pertained to council earmarks. I covered the Trust quite a bit during those years, and it’s fair to say Wells recognized the potential for abuse and at least asked questions about what could be done to prevent abuse. But could he have done more?
Here’s what Wells has to say:
While I was chair of the council’s Human Services Committee, which has oversight of the trust, I recognized the risk when in 2007 the mayor and council budgeted an unprecedented amount of funds to the trust — earmarked for specific organizations and without requiring competitive bidding to disburse the grants. Because I saw the potential for misuse or, even worse, theft, I required the trust to subject the recipients of these funds to the full reporting requirements imposed on grantees in the competitive bidding process. It was only because of those requirements that Mr. Thomas submitted what turned out to be fraudulent reports documenting the expenditure of the funds. Those reports ultimately proved the case against Mr. Thomas and forced his guilty plea.
In 2009, I became increasingly concerned that trust board members could not withstand political pressure from the mayor and council in allocating funds. For that reason, when funding for the trust again was included in the city budget, I inserted a provision that required all such funding to be awarded through a competitive bidding process. We now know this provision curtailed Mr. Thomas’s criminal enterprise.
Yet these reporting and bidding requirements could not prevent Mr. Thomas’s fraudulent acts under lax, and apparently negligent, oversight by the trust’s board and executive director. Despite their claims of grants oversight, verifying site visits and collecting documentation, it is now clear that the funds were not used in the way the trust was told.
Frankly, a determined and powerful public official with criminal intent can always find ways to circumvent regulations and reporting requirements if the people charged with implementing them do not exercise utmost diligence.