Millicent D. West, former director of D.C. homeland security, admitted in federal court Friday to her role in diverting $100,000 intended for youth programs to pay for a 2009 inaugural ball.
West, who pleaded guilty to lying on tax-related documents about how the money was spent, resigned her high-powered post in January 2012 amid the federal probe into the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. She headed the nonprofit, which doles out city funds for youth programs, before serving as homeland security director.
West, 43, is the fifth person to plead guilty in a federal probe of former Council member Harry Thomas Jr.’s theft of more than $350,000 from the trust. Thomas is currently serving a 38-month sentence.
West wept and sighed as she entered her plea before U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates. At one point, her attorney patted her on the back and retrieved tissues for her. West told the judge she had been treated for depression in the past.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, West and prosecutors have agreed to six to 12 months in prison and a fine of $2,000 to $20,000; the charge carries a maximum sentence of three years and up to a $250,000 fine. She is scheduled to be sentenced May 24.
According to court documents, Thomas told West that it was appropriate for the trust to help underwrite the 51st State Inaugural Ball on Jan. 20, 2009, because it was thrown by the D.C. Young Democrats and thus served the trust’s target population.
But West later explained to Thomas’s staff that the Democratic group could not receive the funds because it was a political organization. Ultimately, Thomas instructed his staff to arrange for the trust to grant the money to another nonprofit, Youth Tech, which in turn paid the young Democrats. Youth Tech’s executive director is among those who have pleaded guilty in the scheme.
According to court documents, West knew Youth Tech would help pay for the ball, which in turn “would be of benefit to Council member Thomas.” But Carol Elder Bruce, West’s attorney, told the judge she had a “quibble” with that language, clarifying that West “did not know exactly who was responsible for the bills.”
Both parties, however, agreed that the quibble would not change West’s guilty plea.
In an interview Friday, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. called West a “dedicated public servant.”
In a written statement, he said: “We hope that this guilty plea allows Ms. West to put this mistake behind her and return to doing good works.”
“Unfortunately, as we have seen too many times, she agreed to break the law to appease a crooked public official who was intent on carrying out a criminal scheme. As a result, she allowed more than $100,000 intended to keep D.C. kids off drugs to be used to throw a party for adults,” Machen said.
West rose in D.C. government after then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty tapped her to head the homeland security agency in 2009, a move that several council members and others did not see as a natural progression from the trust. But she quickly won over many naysayers after initial criticism about her lack of experience and security clearances, which she later obtained, that were necessary to communicate with federal agencies.
When Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) took office in 2011, West was among the Cabinet members who survived the transition from Fenty.
West did not speak to media after her court appearance. Bruce, her lawyer, repeated her assertion that Thomas “personally assured” West that the grant request was above-board.
“He assured her that the expenses were for an historic event for youth — that is, a D.C. Youth Ball honoring the inauguration of President Obama,” Bruce said.
Bruce said, however, that West took responsibility for her part in filing inaccurate tax documents.
The three other people who have pleaded guilty in the probe — all heads of nonprofits that received money from the trust that were diverted to Thomas — are awaiting sentencing.
Machen said in an interview that he hopes other public servants will understand “you face real liability here.”
“You can’t just go along. That will lead you to a similar path,” he said.