After raid, D.C.’s Thomascan still count on support

December 3, 2011

Harry Thomas Jr. learned from a phone call that federal agents had raided his house. The D.C. Council member had left his Northeast Washington home to take his younger son to school. An agent called to tell him investigators were inside the house, Thomas told supporters Friday night.

The call was a stark reminder to Thomas (D-Ward 5) that he remains under intense scrutiny by federal authorities and that any hope of regaining his personal and political footing could depend on the U.S. attorney’s office.

But what happened in the hours after the raid left little doubt that Thomas, 50, retains a base of support among longtime backers and D.C. residents in general. And city law and custom mean that he is unlikely to depart quickly or quietly as he fights allegations that he diverted more than $300,000 of public funds to his private use.

The Thomas matter is one of three known federal investigations involving sitting District politicians that have roiled city government this year and have prompted ethics legislation that will go before the council this week.

The 2010 election campaign of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is under scrutiny in connection with allegations of illicit payoffs, and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s 2008 reelection campaign has been probed after an audit found unreported donations and spending, including money that went to his brother’s firm.

But the Thomas allegations stand apart because of their nature and detail, first set out in a lawsuit filed in June by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, and because of the quickening pace of the federal investigation.

During Friday’s raid, agents seized numerous items, including a sport-utility vehicle and a motorcycle. Under federal rules, a warrant permits such seizures only when there is probable cause that the items are evidence or “fruits” of a crime.

In a brief statement Friday, attorney Karl A. Racine renewed Thomas’s assertions of innocence.

As Thomas continues to fight, he can rely on a deep well of goodwill among Ward 5 residents, including many who watched him grow up, the son of Harry Thomas Sr., the former occupant of the council seat that the son now holds, and Romaine Thomas, a political activist and former public school principal.

The FBI raid did little to dim his luster, for instance, among many golfers at the Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington, where Thomas has hosted fundraisers and used to show up almost daily to play a round. But staff members who once encountered him playing golf every day said Saturday that they last saw him at the course months ago.

Some of the men playing golf on a sunny, December day scoffed at the FBI investigation and predicted that it will not undermine the efforts of Team Thomas, the nonprofit foundation founded and controlled by the council member.

“Team Thomas and Harry Thomas have done so much good for so many people,” said James Powell, 66, a Ward 7 resident heading to his car after a weekend game. Of the raid, he said: “People know it’s political. It’s racial. We know what the Thomas family has done in the District of Columbia.”

Supporters gathered Friday at Romaine Thomas’s home in the Michigan Park neighborhood. Her son came to the house that evening, a few hours after agents left his home, according to two people who were there.

“I think he is 100 percent happy to see that people are there just for him,” said Cherita Whiting, a political activist and family friend who visited with Thomas on Friday night. “Nobody’s asking about the situation. Everybody was concerned with his mom and his children and him and his wife.”

Thomas and his inner circle might not be speaking about it much, but “the situation” has put immense pressure on his D.C. Council colleagues.

Most immediately, the council has to deal with the spectacle of federal authorities tightening their grip on one of its own while council members try to pass sweeping ethics legislation. “It is somewhat awkward, to put it mildly,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Congress, for the most part, has let the city chart its own course recently on ethics issues. Although the Thomas investigation may not help the city’s reputation on Capitol Hill, there is no indication that the largely hands-off approach will change.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has vowed to continue work on a plan that would let the city spend its own money after approving a budget without having to wait for congressional approval.

An Issa aide who requested anonymity to describe his boss’s thinking said Saturday that Issa does not see a direct link between his budget autonomy proposal and the situation with Thomas. At the same time, the aide said, “he acknowledges that this has the potential to become a distraction.”

Abe Rakov, a spokesman for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), said Norton “hasn’t seen any impact on the Hill, particularly in light of the council’s own work on ethical matters.”

The council’s Government Operations Committee is set to take up the ethics bill at 10:30 a.m. Monday to prepare for a Tuesday vote by the full council. Thomas is a member of the committee and spoke in favor of the bill in comments at a hearing last week.

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who chairs the committee and drafted the bill, said she had not spoken to Thomas since the raid, and she indicated that his presence at Monday’s meeting might divert attention from the task at hand.

“It seems obvious to me that he is focused on his family and the investigation he is involved in,” she said. “We don’t need any distractions.”

Also Monday, council members are expected to meet privately to discuss Thomas. Brown called an emergency meeting Friday afternoon but postponed it when only a handful of council members could attend.

It is unclear what action, if any, the council might take when it meets. The council could reprimand or censure Thomas, reduce his committee responsibilities or reduce his staff — as it did last year to Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) after charges of self-dealing. Thomas, under pressure, gave up chairmanship of the economic development committee in July after settling the attorney general’s lawsuit.

Cheh, the council chairman pro tempore, said it is “unclear” what will happen at the meeting.

“We need to sit and talk about what is the significance of this,” she said. “It looks like it has ratcheted up the stakes. I would expect the public would want a reaction from his colleagues and the council as a whole.”

Three council members — Cheh, David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — have called on Thomas to resign. District law does not provide for the impeachment of a sitting council member by other members or for any automatic sanctions against an official charged with or convicted of a crime. Thomas could be subject to recall beginning in January.

An elected official jailed for a felony would not be a qualified voter while incarcerated and would, therefore, be ineligible to hold office. The Board of Elections and Ethics could vote to declare the officeholder ineligible to serve and the seat vacant, board spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin said.

But if Thomas were to be charged with a misdemeanor or if he avoided jail time as part of a plea deal, he would be legally eligible to remain in office.

Staff writers Tim Craig, Carol Morello and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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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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