November 20, 2011

THE PLEA from D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) was passionate and urgent. A fire that ripped through a historic farmers market in his ward, he told the council this month, necessitated the emergency authorization of $5 million in public money to assist in the rebuilding. “Damaged, destroyed, devastated” is how Mr. Thomas described the market fire and its impact on those he said were vulnerable city merchants.

No action was taken on the emergency legislation Nov. 1, and that’s a good thing. As in much of Mr. Thomas’s suspect public service, there are troubling questions about this initiative. For instance: Why should a privately owned property that carries its own insurance need help from the city? Considering that the fire department estimated damage at $80,000, where did the proposal for $5 million come from? And, since the owner of the market told us that it “has not requested any public assistance money from the city,” whose idea was this?

Our queries to Mr. Thomas and his office went unanswered. What is known is that about 9 p.m. Oct. 20, a fire — believed by fire investigators to have been caused by some sort of electrical failure — swept through the warehouse-style building that houses the D.C. Farmers Market at 1309 Fifth St. NE. Some 21 vendors of meats, vegetables and flowers were displaced. The property is owned by Edens & Avant, a South Carolina firm that bills itself as one of the nation’s leading private owners and developers of neighborhood shopping places in primary markets on the East Coast. The company bought the property with an eye toward redevelopment; a spokesman said it was looking to reopen as soon as possible but no date has been set. The Office of Campaign Finance lists the company as contributing in 2010 to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s reelection campaign; D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s campaign; and Mr. Thomas’s reelection campaign.

The legislation proposed by Mr. Thomas, “DC Farmer’s Market Disaster Relief Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2011” would have — in addition to setting aside the $5 million — provided an exemption from the remittance of sales tax by the dislocated vendors. “DC Farmer’s Market is not just important to the lives of the city residents in its specific community, but to residents of the District of Columbia in all wards. Therefore, the District should seek means of assistance to rebuild a vibrant landmark and entity of the community,” read an accompanying resolution. To top things off, Mr. Thomas invoked the efforts undertaken by the city to rebuild Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.

Of course, the city owns Eastern Market. At Mr. Brown’s behest, Mr. Thomas agreed to withdraw the measure temporarily so that the two could work together on it. But the chairman told us that the more he learned about the proposal, the more he saw how inappropriate it would be to use public dollars for this purpose. “It’s dead,” he told us.

That leaves unanswered exactly what Mr. Thomas was up to. He’s already under investigation by federal prosecutors for what the D.C. attorney general alleges was the misappropriation of $300,000 in city funds for his own use. Mr. Thomas, who denied any wrongdoing even as he agreed to repay the $300,000, cannot be entrusted with the public good. His continued service on the D.C. Council is a liability that should spur the city’s political leadership to unite behind a call for his resignation. It also underscores the need for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to complete its probe.