Agents from the FBI and the IRS searched the home of D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. on Friday and seized a motorcycle and sport-utility vehicle in the most public and forceful demonstration yet of an ongoing probe of District government officials.
Thomas (D-Ward 5) was not charged or taken into custody, but two law enforcement officials said such a public raid is usually a prelude to criminal charges.
The federal probe stems from allegations first leveled by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who sued Thomas in June, accusing him of using his position on the council to divert more than $300,000 in public funds intended for youth sport programs to groups he headed. Nathan alleged that the money was used as a lavish personal account to purchase an Audi SUV and take trips to Las Vegas and Pebble Beach, Calif. Thomas agreed to repay the District without interest or penalties to settle the city lawsuit.
Nathan, who has limited powers to prosecute criminal offenses, referred the case to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. But since the settlement in late July, there have been few signs of a criminal probe. Thomas, who joined the council in 2007, had initially retreated from the public eye but has started to reemerge as a political force.
Thomas has denied any wrongdoing and has said he settled the suit “in the best interest of the city.” The council member was at home during Friday’s search. Two of his attorneys were with him, but neither answered questions.
In a brief statement, attorney Karl A. Racine said that Thomas continues to cooperate with authorities and maintain his innocence. “At the conclusion of this matter, we sincerely believe that there will be no finding of any criminal violations,” he said.
The FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. attorney’s office all acknowledged “law enforcement activity” at Thomas’s home but declined further comment .
Friday’s events made it clear that Thomas is under intense law enforcement scrutiny. The public nature of the raid also cast a spotlight on this year’s legal troubles in city government, just as officials have been trying to move past the allegations.
Thomas is among several city officials under investigation by federal authorities.
In March, Machen’s office said it was looking into allegations that Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign engaged in a scheme in the run-up to the 2010 Democratic primary to have little-known candidate Sulaimon Brown level verbal attacks on incumbent Adrian M. Fenty in return for cash payments and promises of a job. Probes by the D.C. Council and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have not directly implicated Gray in wrongdoing but have raised questions about his campaign associates. Gray has denied the allegations.
And in July, the city’s elections board referred to Machen an audit of Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s 2008 council campaign that found it had failed to report contributions and expenditures of more than $270,000. The audit also found that the campaign passed $239,000 to a company owned by Brown’s brother via a now-defunct consulting firm.
Nathan’s lawsuit, which several law enforcement officials said forms the basis of their investigation into Thomas, said money budgeted by the council in 2007 for youth sports was directed by Thomas to a private foundation, which, in turn, funneled it to Team Thomas, the nonprofit organization founded and controlled by the council member.
Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), the council’s chairman pro tempore and a law professor, said the raid is an “ominous turn” for Thomas.
“You have to go before a neutral magistrate and establish there was probable cause a crime was committed and evidence can be found on the premises,” said Cheh, who teaches criminal procedure at George Washington University. “That level of proof, while modest, is also the same level of proof needed for an arrest warrant.”
FBI and IRS agents showed up at Thomas’s home about 8 a.m., surprising neighbors who live in the same cul-de-sac on 17th Street NE, a few blocks north of New York Avenue. Thomas’s immediate neighborhood consists of about two-dozen suburban-style, two-story brick houses built about 15 years ago atop a hill.
Late in the morning, a tow truck backed up to Thomas’s house and removed a red motorcycle that agents wheeled out of the garage. Agents also seized a gray late-model Chevy Tahoe, which a law enforcement official said was acquired in a trade-in for the Audi allegedly purchased with Team Thomas funds. Bags and boxes of papers and other materials also were taken from the house and placed into government vehicles throughout the day.
Agents were at the Thomas home for more than eight hours, leaving about 5:30 p.m. They did not search Thomas’s office in the John A. Wilson Building.
People familiar with the federal probe say its scope has expanded beyond the money identified in Nathan’s lawsuit. Agents are looking at other funds directed to nonprofit organizations via earmarks to the city-controlled Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.
Federal investigators have interviewed at least one member of Thomas’s staff. Neil Rodgers, a veteran city government employee, was questioned earlier this year.
Rodgers, who served as the top staffer for the parks and recreation committee while Thomas was its chair, had a role in preparing paperwork related to the grants under scrutiny, according to someone with direct knowledge of the probe.
Rodgers is cooperating with authorities, said his attorney, A. Scott Bolden.
“I believe he is a witness,” Bolden said. “He has not been advised he is a target or subject” of the probe.
Rodgers continues to serve on the D.C. Council staff, although not directly under Thomas. Ellen London, executive director of the investment trust, declined to comment.
While agents went through Thomas’s house and garage, D.C. police barricaded the entrance to the cul-de-sac and strung police tape, as dozens of reporters and photographers gathered on the other side.
After news of the raid spread rapidly via Twitter, several high-profile community activists also rushed to the scene. The atmosphere quickly became political, as the executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee and former candidate Tim Day arrived. Day got crushed by Thomas in the 2010 election but publicized many of the allegations that led to the attorney general’s probe
“I came here because I am a Ward 5 resident, and he has done nothing for us but lie, cheat and steal,” Day said. “This is not about Republican or Democrat. This is about right and wrong.”
But several of Thomas’s friends and neighbors showed up in support, underscoring the weight his name carries in parts of the city.
Two longtime political activists and friends of the Thomas family, Jeanette and Pierpont Mobley, arrived after noon but were not allowed inside the residence.
Jeanette Mobley said they came “just to show support, empathy” for Thomas and his wife, Diane Romo Thomas. “They are still human beings, right?” she said.
Gray, in a statement, said he supported the probe “so that justice can run its course.”
“For the sake of the District,” he said, “I hope the investigation is concluded quickly.”
Brown called an emergency council meeting Friday afternoon to discuss “personnel matters involving an employee or official of the council.” But after only seven members gathered for what was intended to be a closed-door conference, he postponed the meeting to Monday and left without answering questions.
“This is something we all ought to talk about together,” Cheh said.
It is unlikely that council members will meet before the scheduled Monday morning markup of a sweeping ethics reform bill by the council’s Government Operations Committee, of which Thomas is a member. At a Wednesday hearing on the bill, Thomas spoke briefly in its favor, saying it went a “long way” toward improving city ethics laws.
Staff writers Jimm Phillips, Nikita Stewart, Teresa Tomassoni and Del Quentin Wilber and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.