June 6, 2011

WHEN WE RAISED questions last October about his fundraising for a nonprofit, D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) dismissed the subject as “a useless fishing expedition” — but promised to reveal information about the group’s finances and activities. That information was never forthcoming, and now we know at least some of the reasons. An investigation by the city’s attorney general has produced evidence that Mr. Thomas solicited private donations and diverted taxpayer dollars not, as he claimed, to help city youth but for his personal and political benefit.

“Willful, intentional and knowing” is how D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan characterized Mr. Thomas’s funneling of some $316,000 in public funds and more than $80,000 from private donors to entities he controlled for, among other things, the purchase of a luxury sport-utility vehicle, golfing vacations in Pebble Beach and elsewhere, and publication of a brochure extolling his public service. According to a civil action filed by the attorney general that seeks to recover the city’s money, funds earmarked by the D.C. Council in 2007 for “youth baseball programs” went to the D.C. Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation, a nonprofit organization that administers grant funds for the District, which, at Mr. Thomas’s direction, passed them on to the Langston 21st Century Foundation. The foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to youth educational programs, secretly paid most of the money to Mr. Thomas through his non­profit (Team Thomas) and for-profit (HLT Team Thomas/Swingaway LLC, a.k.a. HLT Development) corporations. According to the attorney general, Mr. Thomas had his staff falsify reports on the money’s use.

The attorney general subpoenaed bank records and got the cooperation of Langston officials to detail the money trail. Consider, for example, the purchase of the Audi SUV, which we wrote about last December. According to the attorney general’s action, Langston 21 received $100,000 in city funds on Jan. 28, 2008, and was directed by Mr. Thomas to pay $15,000 to Team Thomas and $60,000 to HLT Development. The $60,000 check was deposited in HLT Development’s account (which at the time had a negative balance of $90.89) on Feb. 6, 2008. Two days later, Mr. Thomas withdrew most of the funds to obtain a cashier’s check in the amount of $58,775.20, which he used to purchase a 2008 Audi Q7 4.2 Quattro Premium sport-utility vehicle. After getting credit for a trade-in, Mr. Thomas didn’t have quite enough money to pay the balance of the $69,149.60, so he completed the purchase by charging $1,074.40 to the Team Thomas debit card. “Thomas purchased the Audi sport utility vehicle for his personal use, and the vehicle was never used by or for the benefit of Langston 21,” the action states. About a year later, Mr. Thomas had the car retitled in his own name; it’s the same vehicle Mr. Thomas drove to the Wilson Building on Monday, accompanied by attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr., to tell reporters that he would fight Mr. Nathan’s court action and that he engaged in no wrongdoing. “I’m willing to risk everything I have,” he said. He did not discuss the specific allegations, claiming to have evidence that, when made public, will back him up.

The 27-page civil action filed in D.C. Superior Court contains other troubling allegations. The list of private concerns that are said to have contributed to Team Thomas in 2007 and 2008 includes those with business before the city and the D.C. Council and for which Mr. Thomas made no disclosure. More questions need to be asked of the D.C. Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation about its oversight of this and millions of dollars of other city grants.

Mr. Nathan, who inherited a politically charged investigation involving an ally of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, is to be commended for his vigorous inquiry; he is insisting on repayment of the city’s money plus penalties. He demurred when asked if he thought Mr. Thomas should resign, saying that’s up to his colleagues and constituents. He made clear, though, that he considered Mr. Thomas’s actions a violation of the public trust. His referral to the U.S. attorney’s office, which had started its own investigation, is an indication that criminal charges are a possibility.

Mr. Thomas says he won’t resign from the council; clearly, he should reconsider. But, then, that would require him to show something that has been sadly lacking from his council tenure: consideration for the people he is supposed to serve.