January 1, 2012

ONE ISSUE THAT demands more attention in the scandal surrounding D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) is the role played by the independent non-profit that administers city grant money for youth programs. Was it a lack of proper controls, susceptibility to political pressure or perhaps both that resulted in funds intended for children’s baseball going, as alleged, to Mr. Thomas? Did this faulty oversight result in other questionable appropriations? D.C. officials should not wait for the outcome of the criminal probe of Mr. Thomas to undertake their own scrutiny of how wisely its money is being allocated.

Investigation by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, which resulted in Mr. Thomas agreeing without admission of wrongdoing to repay the city $300,000, details how the DC Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp. was hoodwinked into directing money earmarked in 2007 for youth baseball to a group that, in turn, funneled it to groups controlled by Mr. Thomas. According to the attorney general’s civil complaint filed in June, the trust followed Mr. Thomas’s direction to pick the Langston 21st Century Foundation as recipient for the funds that were regularly doled out despite seemingly weak documentation. Did no one in the trust think it unusual that it was Mr. Thomas’s council office that was providing the spare budget narratives and work plans, not to mention putting in requests for the issuance of checks?

This wasn’t the only time that the trust followed Mr. Thomas’s lead. A March 12, 2010, account in the Washington City Paper by Mike DeBonis, now with The Post, examined $1.3 million set aside in the fiscal 2010 budget for gang intervention and youth anti-crime initiatives. The money was competitively bid in Ward 6 but not in Ward 5, where, a trust official said, “We met with the Ward 5 council member [Mr. Thomas] and talked about what we felt would be the best way to serve the community. We talked about a number of organizations that he suggested we look at that he knows have a track record of good services.” More recently, the Brookland Heartbeat, a neighborhood publication in Ward 5, raised questions about a $560,000 grant given by the parks department in the summer of 2008 to the trust to fund programs to support a Ward 5 initiative by Mr. Thomas. No evidence of wrongdoing has emerged. But it’s only prudent that the city demand a better accounting of exactly how those monies were spent.

The trust is generally seen as doing truly laudable work in creating better opportunities for D.C. youth. Trust President Ellen London told us that procedures have changed dramatically; for instance, there is now a requirement that all grants be competitively bid and approved by the board. At the initiative of Mr. Nathan, the city entered into a new agreement with the trust that includes better controls. Not only does it tighten how city funds are accounted for, but it also requires the trust to disclose all communications from council members or staffers regarding the distribution of funds. Clearly that’s a step in the right direction — but we would also urge the D.C. Council to take its own look at whether further improvements are warranted.

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