Federal probe complicates how D.C. Council can deal with Thomas

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described which offices federal investigators searched in the Ted G. Loza case. This version has been corrected.

December 4, 2011

D.C. Council members are set to discuss embattled colleague Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) this week, but any action they might take is complicated by the council’s past and its future.

Thomas’s Northeast Washington home was raided Friday morning by federal agents who removed numerous items, including a sport-utility vehicle and a motorcycle. A law enforcement source said the raid is connected to an investigation of graft allegations leveled in a civil lawsuit filed in June by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) called an emergency meeting of members Friday but initially postponed the meeting to Monday after several members were unable to attend. His spokeswoman, Karen Sibert, said it was “not definite” the meeting would happen Monday.

Brown and many of his colleagues have declined to comment publicly on the raid since Friday, but the hastily called meeting is an acknowledgment that the escalating federal investigation has renewed pressure on the council to take action on Thomas.

Thomas has given up his chairmanship of the council’s Economic Development Committee, which he did under pressure after Nathan said that Thomas funneled more than $300,000 of city funds through intermediaries into groups under his control. Thomas has denied any criminal wrongdoing.

Brown declined to comment Sunday, but he has previously expressed concern about allowing due process for Thomas, who has not been charged with a crime but has agreed to repay the city $300,000 to settle Nathan’s lawsuit. Brown is also under pressure from members concerned that repercussions for Thomas are in keeping with those for other council members who have been subject to investigation.

For instance, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was censured and stripped of his committee chairmanship by the council in March 2010, but only after members commissioned an independent investigation that found he had given council contracts to a close personal friend and had funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in earmarks to nonprofit groups he had created and controlled.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) voluntarily relinquished his committee oversight of the D.C. Taxicab Commission after the FBI arrested his chief of staff, Ted G. Loza, on charges of accepting bribes to influence legislation related to the taxi industry. Loza later pleaded guilty to felony charges of accepting payments, although this plea did not include an admission of taking any action to benefit taxi interests.

This year, Graham came under scrutiny after court filings indicated that Loza had passed to him a cash payment from a government informant. Graham did not accept the money and ordered Loza to return it, but he came under criticism for not reporting the payment. Graham was not charged with a crime, and the council took no action against him.

Some of Thomas’s supporters have quietly raised the specter of a racial double standard, noting that Graham was not forced to relinquish his committee or undergo other sanctions after federal agents raided Loza’s office, which was part of Graham’s suite in the John A. Wilson Building.

Further complicating any action the council might take is that any precedent set might also come to bear on Brown, whose 2008 reelection campaign is under investigation by federal authorities.

The Board of Elections and Ethics voted in July to refer to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. an audit that found unreported donations and spending, including money that went to his brother’s firm.

Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said “it would be redundant” for the council to launch an investigation of Thomas, as it did in the Barry matter, while an active federal probe is underway.

“We don’t want to step on their toes,” said Cheh, who is one of three members who have called on Thomas to resign.

The council has several options it could entertain — from issuing a joint statement of concern to removing Thomas from committee assignments to a formal reprimand — but the legislature has no power to remove or impeach one of its own. “People who think, ‘Throw the bums out,’ we can’t do that,” Cheh said. “That’s up to the people who elected him.”

Under city law, Thomas is subject to recall beginning in January.

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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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