After Thomas resignation, there’s no trust left to restore on D.C. Council

Courtland Milloy
Columnist January 8, 2012

The District’s elected officials don’t seem to realize the gravity of the wound that D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) has inflicted on them. Now that Thomas has resigned and pleaded guilty to embezzlement, they behave as if a few expressions of disappointment and a pledge to do better will put the matter to rest.

“Fundamentally, what is at issue here is the need of the council and government to restore the public trust,” council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said.

What trust? There is none to restore. Even if there were no more criminal investigations of elected city officials underway — and there are several doozies — Thomas’s actions alone would be enough to drain the council of every last drop of credibility.

Between 2007 and 2009, during a homicide epidemic, Thomas took taxpayer money earmarked to protect children from violence and spent it on himself. And then he’d show up at crime scenes, sometimes driving a $59,000 Audi Quattro SUV that he’d bought with the ill-gotten gains, and declare that residents themselves should be doing more to stop the violence.

“People in general realize it’s not just a policing issue,” Thomas said in August 2008, appealing to residents in his ward for help in catching the killer of a 13-year-old boy who had been struck by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting.

Two months later, on Halloween, Thomas took $23,000 that was supposed to help fund a youth sports program and bought himself a motorcycle.

From the council dais, Thomas railed against those who posed a threat to his racket, including then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the city’s interim attorney general, Peter Nickles. Residents might rightly wonder whether those who voted with Thomas were knowingly complicit or just being played for fools.

Either way, trust is destroyed.

The same is true regarding those community crime forums. During one 90-minute meeting at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in 2008, Fenty, Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes and a contingent of police officers stood with Thomas trying to assure irate residents that everything possible was being done to make them safer.

Thomas made liars out of all of them.

“There are ongoing feuds in this neighborhood that lead to gunplay,” Thomas said in 2007 after seven people, including three children, were wounded during a shootout at a housing complex. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of what the issues are.”

A while later, he took $7,000 of children’s money, bought some suits and went on vacation in Las Vegas.

During the height of the killings, D.C. government officials proposed keeping 11 recreation facilities open on Sundays and until midnight on Saturdays. Thomas was among those favoring the changes, saying, “That’s when people need them. Nights and weekends.”

But he was silent when Clark Ray, then director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, told the D.C. Council that he was “scouring the budget” to find $368,000 to fund the changes.

Ray should have been scouring Thomas’s pockets.

All told, according to the U.S. attorney’s office, Thomas embezzled more than $350,000 in government funds.

“I am deeply saddened by what has taken place,” D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said after Thomas resigned. “It is a somber day for the residents, but nothing is to be preferred before justice.”

“Nothing is to be preferred before justice.” The quote is from Socrates, but Brown’s use of it is too clever by half. Why mouth the words when the great philosopher’s concept of justice would require that Brown and all the rest of the council relinquish the perks of public office — just resign, all of you — and go do some real public service for a change.

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