January 13, 2012

Former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.’s theft of more than $300,000 in city funds that were intended to help children was an outrageous and despicable act. But it does not justify disbanding the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., the public-private nonprofit that was the source of the stolen money.

Instead, Mr. Thomas’s embezzlement of grant dollars through intermediaries for his personal use spotlights the urgent need for a leadership change at the trust and for a full review by the mayor and D.C. Council of the qualifications of the trust’s board of directors and president. And we need to make sure future appointees fulfill their responsibilities to strictly control the program’s funds.

In its early days, under the leadership of Mayor Anthony Williams and a strong board of directors, the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. leveraged millions of dollars from private foundations — including $8 million from the Wallace Foundation — to support the city’s after-school programs. Instead of dismantling this valuable institution, let’s restore its ability to responsibly serve children and youth in the District.

While I was chair of the council’s Human Services Committee, which has oversight of the trust, I recognized the risk when in 2007 the mayor and council budgeted an unprecedented amount of funds to the trust — earmarked for specific organizations and without requiring competitive bidding to disburse the grants. Because I saw the potential for misuse or, even worse, theft, I required the trust to subject the recipients of these funds to the full reporting requirements imposed on grantees in the competitive bidding process. It was only because of those requirements that Mr. Thomas submitted what turned out to be fraudulent reports documenting the expenditure of the funds. Those reports ultimately proved the case against Mr. Thomas and forced his guilty plea.

In 2009, I became increasingly concerned that trust board members could not withstand political pressure from the mayor and council in allocating funds. For that reason, when funding for the trust again was included in the city budget, I inserted a provision that required all such funding to be awarded through a competitive bidding process. We now know this provision curtailed Mr. Thomas’s criminal enterprise.

Yet these reporting and bidding requirements could not prevent Mr. Thomas’s fraudulent acts under lax, and apparently negligent, oversight by the trust’s board and executive director. Despite their claims of grants oversight, verifying site visits and collecting documentation, it is now clear that the funds were not used in the way the trust was told.

Frankly, a determined and powerful public official with criminal intent can always find ways to circumvent regulations and reporting requirements if the people charged with implementing them do not exercise utmost diligence. There is still work to be done to ensure that the trust meets the reporting standards and transparency necessary to not only protect local funding, but also to attract funding from national foundations again. While oversight of the trust was strengthened over the last several years, the mayor and council need to review the grant-making process for this or any other entity that receives D.C. funds, as well as the past actions and qualifications of all Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. board members and leadership to assess their ability to oversee grant-making and replace those who do not meet the highest standards.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Ward 6 on the D.C. Council.