D.C. councilor Harry Thomas should get 4-year sentence, prosecutors say

Federal prosecutors asked a judge Friday to sentence former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. to nearly four years in prison, saying he repeatedly breached the public trust for his own self-interest.

Thomas pleaded guilty in January to two felony counts connected to his theft of more than $350,000 in city funds intended for youth sports programs.

In court filings Friday, prosecutors requested a 46-month sentence, while Thomas’s attorneys made a lengthy case for a more lenient 18-month sentence. The filings will be reviewed by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates before a sentencing hearing Thursday.

Sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence of 41 to 51 months, according to federal probation officials. Bates is free to depart from those guidelines.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. argued in his filing for a sentence toward the top end of that range.

As “Thomas secretly stole money earmarked for youth-enrichment programs, he publicly portrayed himself as a champion of underprivileged children,” Machen wrote. “His corrupt conduct tarnished the reputation of the [D.C. Council] and posed a serious distraction to the operations of the city government.”

Machen said that while some of the stolen funds went to the community, the bulk of the money was used to fund lavish trips and a luxury sport-utility vehicle.

“Put simply,” he wrote, “Thomas used public funds to live an extravagant lifestyle to the detriment of children in his Ward.”

In a letter to Bates, Thomas apologized and accepted “full responsibility” for his theft. “By violating the trust that people placed in me, I brought shame not only on myself, but on my family and my supporters,” Thomas, 51, wrote. “I could not have let them down more.”

He referenced his time as a sports coach in the letter: “As I have always said to those I have mentored: 1% or 100%, wrong is wrong. Clearly, what I did I was wrong.”

His letter is one of 92 his attorneys submitted to the court in support of his plea for leniency. They include missives from Thomas, his mother, his wife and several of his children.

“The pain has been deep and severe,” wrote his mother, Romaine Thomas. “This has caused a serious blow to our family pride, courage and values.”

She continued: “I continually ask myself the most stinging question. How did my son, who was reared in a Christian family from humble beginnings, become involved and entangled in a such an ill-fated situation?”

In court filings, Thomas’s attorneys ask Bates to “look at the full picture of Mr. Thomas’s life, not simply the snapshot capturing his crimes.”

“Mr. Thomas acknowledges that his crimes were an inexcusable breach of the public trust,” wrote the lawyers, Seth A. Rosenthal, Karl A. Racine and Gilead I. Light of the Venable firm. “Having pled guilty prior to indictment, he has fully accepted responsibility for his conduct and stands ready to accept the consequences.”

Machen’s memorandum also criticized Thomas, a Democrat, for involving two other men who have pleaded guilty to felonies connected to his scheme. Marshall Banks and James Garvin, directors of a nonprofit group Thomas used to divert the city funds, did not know Thomas “in any meaningful way” prior to joining in his scheme, Machen wrote.

“Thomas’s willingness to use his political power to drive others to engage in criminal activity that primarily benefitted Thomas is yet another reason” for a relatively harsh sentence, he wrote.

The filing includes Thomas’s own words hailing the importance of the sporting activities the funds he stole were meant to support. “Sports teach our kids self-discipline, teamwork, leadership and cooperation, as well as how to share, handle stress and compete,” he wrote in a newsletter published while the scheme was afoot.

Among other mitigating factors, Thomas’s attorneys said that his “history of extraordinary community service” should be taken into account. But Machen said Thomas’s service to residents of Ward 5 should not be given special consideration.

“Thomas’s day-to-day work as a Council member, dealing with constituents in his Ward and others, was just that: his job,” he wrote. “Far from being a mitigating factor, Thomas’s participation in local youth events was part and parcel of his crime. It provided an appearance of altruism that assisted in concealing his theft.”

His record on the council and as a youth sports advocate, “pales when compared with the harm that Thomas caused by stealing from his own constituents,” Machen wrote.

Meanwhile, a D.C. Council committee approved giving itself the authority to issue subpoenas Friday in its probe of the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., the quasi-public nonprofit Thomas used to divert the funds.

The 4-0 vote of the council Committee on Human Services came the same day it released a report that concluded Thomas may have been helped from someone in city government when he diverted the funds from the organization.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said the subpoena power and the committee’s further investigation of the trust was part of “restoring philanthropic confidence in this organization.”

The vote drew swift, strong opposition from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his administration, questioning whether the council would be investigating itself and pointing to pending probes by Machen’s office, the D.C. attorney general’s office and D.C. auditor, which is overseen by the council.

“In light of the fact that there are three active investigations, including one by an arm of the City Council, it is inappropriate, inadvisable and counterproductive for a committee of the council to conduct an investigation,” Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said in an interview Friday.

Gray said in a statement that he “fully supports” the investigations. “But given questions about the Council’s relationship with the Trust, I believe these reviews should remain in the hands of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney,” he said.

Graham said he was astonished by Gray’s statement.

“Now, the mayor has become the spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office? Is this the end of Home Rule, thank you, Mr. Mayor?” Graham asked in an interview. “I’m trying to do my job — uncover wrongdoing.”

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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