The District’s attorney general at the time, Peter Nickles, initiated a probe of the charity, called Team Thomas. Nickles’s successor, Irvin B. Nathan, outlined the graft allegations in a civil suit in June and referred the case to the U.S. attorney’s office for criminal charges.
At the time, Thomas said that he had done nothing wrong.
However, it soon became clear that federal authorities were aggressively pursuing Thomas. Federal agents raided his home last month.
According to a statement of offense signed by Thomas, the former council member began plotting his embezzlement scheme in January 2007. The first step involved targeting city funds that had been given to the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a nonprofit, public-private partnership dedicated to developing programs to help children.
After taking office, Thomas asked the trust to provide a $60,000 grant to a for-profit group — identified in court papers only as “Organization #1” — that provided arts-oriented youth programs. In July 2007, an unidentified person in control of that group issued two checks totaling $25,000 to entities controlled by Thomas: Team Thomas, a nonprofit organization, and HLT Development, a for-profit corporation. Thomas’s groups provided no services in return for the grant award, prosecutors say.
The arrangement with Children and Youth Investment Trust was repeated on a larger scale the next year with a $392,000 grant intended for youth baseball programs — a scheme previously detailed in the D.C. attorney general’s civil lawsuit. Thomas arranged with a group affiliated with Langston Golf Course in Ward 5 to apply for the grant, then send $306,000 back to the two groups controlled by Thomas, prosecutors say. Thomas used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle that included the $69,000 Audi, trips, clothes and meals.
To support the grant award, Thomas directed a council staff member to prepare falsified documents and reports for the group, the Langston 21st Century Foundation, describing salaries, trips and events that did not exist or were not paid for from the grant money.
In December, the city revised its agreement with the Children and Youth Investment Trust to ensure more thorough reporting and monitoring of its grants.
The federal investigation also looked at Thomas’s use of city money to pay for a presidential inaugural ball held in the John A. Wilson Building in 2009.
The ball was organized by the D.C. Young Democrats, then headed by a Thomas staff member. Thomas, prosecutors said, “was intimately involved” in planning the event, which was not attended by President Obama or prominent national politicians.
After the ball, Thomas realized that there were insufficient funds to cover the event’s costs and and sought help from Children and Youth Investment Trust, which provided $110,000.
But the trust’s executive director, Millicent D. West, told Thomas that the money could not be sent directly to the Young Democrats, according to prosecutors. West advised Thomas’s staff to “change the name of the entity that would receive the funds,” the court papers said. Thomas did so, and the money was funneled through a Langston-affiliated group. Thomas ended up being reimbursed $7,500 for ball-related expenses from the Young Democrats.
Court papers did not identify West by name. West, who is now head of the city's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, did not dispute the facts alleged by prosecutors. But she said she considered the inaugural event a proper use of public funds.
“I didn’t see it as a political event,” she said. “From what I understood, the money was being used for a celebration calling young people together to celebrate a historic moment.”
The Thomas case is one of three known federal investigations involving sitting District politicians. Authorities continue to probe Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) 2010 campaign, including allegations of illegal cash payoffs, and the D.C. elections board referred D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s (D) 2008 at-large campaign for a federal review of unreported transactions and other irregularities.
There is no city law barring someone from running for office after a felony conviction.
It will be months before there is new representation for residents of Ward 5, which encompasses most of the Northeast Washington quadrant west of the Anacostia River.
Staff writers Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.