Jim Graham seeks appointment to Youth Trust board

January 17, 2013

Jim Graham, seen on the Metro board dais (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is seeking to join the board of the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a government-controlled nonprofit he oversees as chairman of the council’s Human Services committee.

The CYITC is also the group that former council member Harry Thomas Jr. used to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars by directing grants through its budget to favored charities that then paid him kickbacks, prompting investigations and debates over the group’s future.

It would be unprecedented for an elected official to sit on the CYITC board, which is composed of council and mayoral appointees, though Mayor Adrian M. Fenty  appointed several of his aides to serve on the board.

Graham used his committee post last year to aggressively investigate the nonprofit’s dealings with Thomas and in other matters, which led to the firing of its chief executive.

Graham said Thursday he is seeking a nonvoting seat on the board, one of two such advisory posts appointed by the council. He acknowledged asking Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to make the appointment, saying he deserved to have a closer role in overseeing the organization.

Still, observers have lamented the politicization of the Trust’s work, which helped lead to the Thomas fiasco.

But Graham said his intentions are pure. “This is the current structure, and the current structure has people who are closely representing elected officials,” he said. “What the future issue ought to be is a separate issue.”

Note that Graham’s service on another board proved controversial. He was a member of the Metro board of directors from 1999 until 2010, during which time he was accused of improperly intervening in a land deal in 2008. An independent investigation concluded last year found in doing so he broke internal Metro ethics rules, while the District ethics board continues to investigate the matter. Graham has denied doing anything improper.

Mendelson, according to a council staff member, is “seriously considering” making the appointment. A spokeswoman for Mendelson declined to comment.

Update, 1/18, 4:25 p.m.: In an unusually strong statement, CYITC board president Robert C. Bobb sent a letter to Graham Friday asking him to withdraw his request to serve on the board.

Bobb, a former District city administrator, said he reacted to news of Graham’s request with “great consternation” and “strongly oppose[d]” his appointment to the board.

“As Chairman to the Human Services Committee you have oversight of the Trust and I do not see what value would come from adding you as a nonvoting Board member,” he wrote. “In fact, I believe that such an appointment could potentially impact the Trust’s ability to create a broader donor base, further develop relationships within the non-profit community, and serve the children and families of the District of Columbia in the most effective way possible.”

He continued, “I believe that measures must be taken to prevent repeating the problems of the past by erecting a barrier between the Trust and elected officials. Appointing a Councilmember to the Board, even in a non-voting capacity, would not only represent a rejection of that idea but would essentially serve to institutionalize the very dynamic we are seeking to avoid.”

In other news, youth advocates have also bombarded Mendelson with calls asking him to reject Graham’s request, said Maggie Riden, executive director of the Alliance of Youth Advocates.

“There needs to be a greater division between political influence and the operations of the Trust if they are going to operate as they’re intended,” Riden said Friday. Graham’s appointment to the board, she said, would “creates a clear and immediate conflict of interest.”

Update, 1/18, 5:30 p.m.: Graham responded to Bobb in the following e-mail:

Mr. Bobb:

Since you have apparently chosen to publish your letter to me, I am doing the same with my response.

Please understand that I have always taken my oversight responsibilities seriously. I had mentioned words to that effect to you at the ANC swearing in just a few days ago. I suspect you will recall your reply to me.

None of this would be happening had there been implementation of my organizational recommendations in the investigative report my Committee did. (May I assume that you have now found the time to read it?)

But that did not happen and we are today still working under the current system. And that system (as the report discusses in detail) anticipates political involvement in the Trust. Thus, in addition to the appointment of all the Board members, yourself included, the Mayor and the Council each have two nonvoting members. The history of the Council’s law creating the CYITC anticipates that they be person close to both entities.

Thus Mayor Gray appointed his deputy mayor and a member of his cabinet….without any apparent uproar.

I am requesting that the Council Chair select the Chair of the Committee with oversight over the entity you chair and the public funds …which by the way probably still constitute about 95% or more of the CYITC total budget.

There is another point.

It has been difficult under your chairmanship for my committee to obtain information from the CYITC. You yourself have repeatedly refused to testify before the Committee.

For example, we have yet to receive a copy of the FY2010 audit (year ending September 30, 2010!) despite numerous promises that it was at long last complete and it would be provided. I needn’t have to tell you that the Council has a vitally important role in in stewardship over the DC funds entrusted to the CYITC. It was my committee that made public all of the disturbing problems concerning the FY 2010 audit. Most recently we were told that it was finally complete and in the hands of the board for review. That was several months ago.

That gives you a better understanding, I hope, why this appointment matters. I am concerned that absent that, you will continue to be less than forthcoming in providing information to the committee.

But rest assured, I believe in reform of the structure of the CYITC and that is reflected in all the work we did last year on these and related issues. But since no task force has been created, I will proceed to draft a proposal reorganizing the Trust governance. In the meantime, we have what we have.

Councilmember Jim Graham

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | January 17, 2013