The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. hired a woman who stole government funds. Now the city’s probing whether she did it again.

The logo for Project Empowerment, a "second chance" employement program for people with criminal records. (D.C. Department of Employment Services)

Authorities are investigating allegations that a D.C. government employee diverted money from a jobs program designed to help those with felony convictions — a program that benefited the employee herself, who had previously been sentenced to prison for stealing federal funds while working for a Maryland school district.

Rhayda Barnes-Thomas, 48, worked until recently at Project Empowerment, a program within the D.C. Department of Employment Services that provides jobs for the homeless, former criminal offenders and others who face obstacles finding work. Her employment ended in the spring, a department spokeswoman said.

D.C.’s inspector general is investigating whether Barnes-Thomas used her access to internal information about Project Empowerment to steal money from the program, according to two District government officials with knowledge of the investigation. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing. The amount of money allegedly taken is not clear.

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) sent a letter last week to Unique Morris-Hughes, interim director of D.C. employment services, and City Administrator Rashad M. Young, saying she had learned of the allegations against Barnes-Thomas. In the letter, Silverman asked why Barnes-Thomas had been placed in a role with access to the agency’s payroll in light of her criminal history.

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“Project Empowerment gives District residents a second chance after serving their sentence for a criminal conviction, but this case raises questions about what type of employment is appropriate,” Silverman wrote. “That Barnes-Thomas would be given access to public funds raises serious questions about how Project Empowerment and [the Department of Employment Services] vets employees.”

The department issued a brief statement in response to questions about Barnes-Thomas from The Washington Post.

“The Department of Employment Services takes allegations of fraud seriously,” Morris-Hughes said. “Upon learning of potential irregularities, we immediately notified the proper authorities. Due to the ongoing investigation, we are unable to comment further.”

Barnes-Thomas, who has not been charged with a crime in connection with her work for the D.C. government, declined to comment on the circumstances of her departure from the department during a brief interview outside her home in Southeast Washington.

She denied that she had stolen any money from Project Empowerment and said that no investigators had been in touch with her. “I don’t know anything about that,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of the Inspector General said the office does not comment on ongoing investigations or confirm their existence.

Barnes-Thomas pleaded guilty in 2011 to stealing federal funding intended for public schools in Charles County, Md. While serving as an administrator for the school system, she stole Title I money — intended to provide classroom supplies and equipment for children in poor areas — and used it to buy personal items including televisions, iPods and a Nintendo Wii video-game console, prosecutors said.

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A federal judge sentenced Barnes-Thomas to 27 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered her to pay more than $115,000 in restitution.

Barnes-Thomas was hired at the District’s Employment Services Department in February 2014 as an assistant in the Project Empowerment program, a spokeswoman said. She had recently completed the program, which offers job training and up to six months of subsidized employment to those with criminal histories and other problems finding work.

Barnes-Thomas was eventually promoted to program analyst. As of December, her salary was $70,345, according to public records. Her employment ended May 1.

The extent to which District officials assessed Barnes-Thomas’s criminal history when assigning her responsibilities at Project Empowerment is unclear.

D.C. regulations require that government agencies conduct a “suitability assessment” that includes background checks of potential employees.

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.