A federal jury on Monday convicted former D.C. Council aide Neil S. Rodgers on one of three counts related to the corruption scandal involving former council member Harry Thomas Jr., concluding that the aide helped Thomas divert more than $100,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for a 2009 political event.
In a split decision, the 12-member D.C. jury convicted Rodgers on one count of first-degree fraud under D.C. law, acquitted him of a federal charge of wire fraud and continued deliberations on another federal count of theft of U.S. government funds.
The fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Rodgers, 62, served as director of the council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, which Thomas chaired. Prosecutors charged that Rodgers “used his influence” as a senior council employee to raid a youth drug-prevention fund to cover expenses for an unofficial ball to mark the 2009 inauguration of President Obama.
Rodgers, a 30-year city government veteran whose father and mother served as the superintendent of the D.C. Jail and administrator of the D.C. Board of Elections, respectively, was present for the verdict. His attorneys, William R. Martin and Kerry Branard Verdi, of the Martin & Gitner law firm, declined to comment, as did prosecutors, citing the jury’s ongoing deliberations.
The partial verdict nearly closes the book on a three-year investigation that shook the D.C. government, exposing the depths of a corrupt, pay-to-play culture that reached council staff and agency grant recipients.
In a seven-day trial before U.S. District Judge John D. Bates of the District, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle A. Zamarin told jurors that “Neil Rodgers stole taxpayers’ money meant for children to pay for a party for adults.”
At the time of Rodgers’s January 2014 indictment, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. called it the “final step” in the investigation into Thomas, 54, who resigned in 2012 and is serving a 38-month sentence at a federal prison camp in Montgomery, Ala.
Thomas pleaded guilty in January 2012 to stealing more than $350,000 by earmarking taxpayer money for children’s causes and then steering the money through nonprofit groups into his pocket.
Rodgers was the only defendant to go to trial. Six others — including Thomas, his chief of staff, Ayawna Chase Webster, and four leaders of three nonprofit organizations — have pleaded guilty to their roles in concealing or aiding in the schemes.
In Rodgers’s defense, his attorneys presented several witnesses who attested to his good character. They said that Rodgers did not profit from Thomas’s actions and that he believed at the time that the 2009 inauguration event was sanctioned by the D.C. Council.
“He was the bureaucrat, the worker bee who sat there and did his job,” Martin told jurors. “. . . He didn’t do anything other than what he was told to do by his boss.”
However, prosecutors argued that Rodgers facilitated a plan to divert funds that taxpayers designated for childhood drug and alcohol prevention programs via a check-off boxon their tax return forms to pay instead for catering, security and other expenses related to the inaugural ball.
The 51st State Inaugural Ball was sponsored by Thomas (D-Ward 5), then-council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and then-council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) to honor the election of the nation's first black president.
The event, held at the John A. Wilson Building, was organized by Webster, who was also head of the D.C. Young Democrats. When $51-per-person ticket sales fell short of costs, Thomas helped channel the taxpayer funds to the Democratic organization through the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a nonprofit group that works with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to spend the drug abuse prevention funds on at-risk youths.
Prosecutors said Rodgers gave false information to be submititted to the trust, and eventually helped channel the grant funds to another nonprofit group, Youth Technology Institute, which passed the money to Webster after taking a small cut.
Danita C. Doleman, president of the Institute; Millicent D. West, former director of the trust corporation; and Webster have pled guilty to tax-related charges and await sentencing.