D.C. Ward 5 split over allegations against council’s Thomas

In Ivy City, a Northeast neighborhood down on its luck for decades, the two dozen residents who came to D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.’s community meeting had plenty to talk about.

They asked Thomas about efforts to redevelop an old school site, pressed him on why some special education students are bused out of town and noted that they prefer recreation centers to bike lanes and dog parks in Ward 5.

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post) - D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., shown in June, is facing allegations that he diverted more than $300,000 from youth programs to pay for a luxury sport utility vehicle and personal travel.

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In an indication of the bond between them and Thomas, the recent conversation was blunt but jovial — residents even joked with Thomas about whether neighborhood crime problems could be resolved if more parents paddled their children.

“If the law allowed for butts to be whipped, people would not be walking around with guns,” one mother said.

Noticeably missing from the meeting was any sense that residents were preparing to discipline Thomas over allegations now under federal investigation that he diverted more than $300,000 from youth programs to pay for a luxury sport-utility vehicle and personal travel.

When the meeting broke up, many residents said they were standing by the two-term council member, a Democrat.

“All we see in him is good stuff,” said Mohammed Mobaidin, 52, a longtime community business leader. “Nobody believes he did it. I don’t believe it. We’ve discussed it a couple of times, and the majority of people in this neighborhood said, ‘There is no way he did it.’ ”

Across Ward 5, which includes some of the city’s most politically active neighborhoods, the allegations have split the community into two camps: those who fear they are being represented by an alleged swindler of public funds, and those who believe Thomas is the target of the media or a politicized investigation.

With Thomas potentially facing a recall election or criminal indictment, his constituents and council colleagues say he attends fewer events and is less active on community e-mail discussion groups. Some say they noticed this summer that the stress of the investigation took a toll on his appearance — for instance, that he seemed to be shaving less frequently. And his brand has taken a hit among many of Ward 5’s newcomers, who represent the city’s changing demographics.

But Thomas remains popular in large swaths of Northeast, enabling him to keep his grip on his council seat despite a civil settlement with the city’s attorney general’s office over the public funds and the criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Thomas maintained his innocence and rejected calls for his resignation from editorial writers, three council members, the D.C. Republican Party and good-government groups.

“I have good lawyers and people who deal with the legal process, and I am confident through the legal process I will be vindicated,” said Thomas, 50. “My job now is to assure that the citizens of Ward 5 continue to get their fair share, and that is what I continue to do.”

Aiming for normalcy

Since the council returned from summer recess last month, Thomas has tried to project a sense of normalcy: voting on a tax increase and ethics proposals, questioning Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) about jobs for city residents and participating in a campaign to prevent teen pregnancy by speaking out about having a son when he was 19.

At a recent council meeting, for instance, Thomas led a moment of silence for Jelani Omar Prather, a D.C. police officer killed in a Sept. 16 traffic accident. When Prather’s mother broke down, Thomas embraced her with the sort of compassion that separates an excellent politician from a good one. A few minutes later, Thomas co-sponsored a bill to try to improve water quality in the Anacostia River.

But as Thomas continues his council duties, the U.S. attorney’s office across town is trying to determine whether he should be indicted on allegations of stealing public funds. Federal law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the case said Thomas is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation.

In a recent interview with WAMU (88.5 FM), U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen said his office is investigating but could decide there is not enough evidence to prove beyond a “reasonable doubt” that Thomas committed a crime.

In July, Thomas agreed to repay the District $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by city Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan. The suit claimed Thomas defrauded taxpayers when he used funds allocated to “youth baseball programs” to pay for a $59,000 Audi SUV for himself and vacations to Las Vegas and Pebble Beach, Calif.

Thomas declined to comment on the allegations or his defense and denied speculation around city hall that he’s trying to work out a plea deal. “I would endanger myself more if I tell my story before the legal process plays itself out,” Thomas said.

‘It was all there for him’

Just 18 months ago, Thomas, the son of the late council member Harry Thomas Sr., who represented Ward 5 from 1987 to 1999, was viewed as a rising star in the local Democratic Party.

Thomas impressed many city progressives when he voted in favor of same-sex marriage in December even though many of his constituents opposed the measure. The vote, along with his visits to events outside Ward 5, was viewed as a signal that he was considering a citywide campaign.

By January, Thomas had reached a new milestone in his political career when Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) named him chairman of the powerful Committee on Economic Development, a perch from which Thomas could expand his influence and widen his fundraising base.

“It was all there for him,” said one council member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the matter. “Now, it’s just sad, sad, sad.”

After Nathan referred the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office, Thomas was forced to step down as committee chairman in June, giving up much of his newfound power. And in what may be a first for the council, members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) called on Thomas to step down.

“I think the whole body is just holding its breath to see what the U.S. attorney will do. . . . There is no question, this is an enormous distraction,” Catania said.

Asked whether he felt betrayed by his colleagues, Thomas said, “In this business, you don’t get hurt; you expect everything and build relationships based on issues.”

On Sept. 9, Cheh saw Thomas sitting alone at a rally for a Howard University football game. So Cheh, who hadn’t talked to him since she called for his resignation, grabbed the seat next him.

“Tommy, frankly, said he was hurt by this because he hasn’t had a chance to put his side out there,” she recalled. “But I wanted him to understand I did that because I thought, and still think, that was the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my fondness for him.”

A recall effort

In Ward 5, Thomas appears to be maintaining at least some of the appeal that earned him 62 percent of the vote against three Democrats in last year’s primaries. Still, some activists and local leaders say his standing has diminished, especially in the wealthier, more diverse sections, including Bloomingdale and Eckington.

Some are gearing up to collect enough signatures by January to force a recall election. “Harry Thomas Must Go” T-shirts have been printed.

“The people I talk to can’t wait for a chance to sign a petition for his removal,” said Vaughn Bennett, who represents parts of Brookland on an advisory neighborhood commission. “A recall effort is pretty much a guarantee.”

But a growing number of activists and Democrats in Ward 5 doubt a recall could be successful. Thomas enjoys considerable support in the eastern sections of the ward, where he’s referred to as “Tommy,” and some activists question whether the effort would be successful in a year when Democrats will focus on reelecting President Obama.

“I don’t think there are going to be enough people to tell him to go,” said Kathryn Pearson-West, a Ward 5 Democratic activist. “People are disappointed and a lot of people are not going to lose sleep if he resigns, but I don’t see a lot of people trying to force him out.”

At a recent Ward 5 Democratic Committee meeting, several activists said privately that they would be hesitant to join a recall effort out of respect for Thomas’s mother, Romaine, and his late father, who was revered for his constituent service.

Thomas continues to quietly maintain and nurture relationships with some activists, but for some residents without the same connections to Thomas, his alleged behavior has tainted the neighborhood.

“It’s sad to see politics in this city built on a network of glad-handing instead of real policy,” said Elizabeth Lyttleton, 34, who moved to Eckington from Australia four years ago.

But in Ivy City, Thomas showed that he still connects with voters in ways that allow him to remain relevant in his ward.

As the light-hearted debate on how to discipline children continued, Thomas recognized a young man standing in the back of the room. It was his 24-year-old son, Kendrick.

“Did I ever whoop you when you did something wrong?” Thomas asked.

Kendrick didn’t respond.

“No comment,” the audience shouted as the meeting broke amid laughter.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

 
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