A majority of D.C. Council members said in a closed-door meeting Monday that colleague Harry Thomas Jr. should take a paid leave of absence while a federal investigation into his activities continues.
Thomas (D-Ward 5), whose home was raided by federal agents Friday, did not attend the afternoon meeting in a John A. Wilson Building conference room. But all 12 of his colleagues did, and according to five of them, only Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) voiced objections to the suggestion that Thomas step down until the investigation is resolved. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) agreed to ask Thomas to take a leave of absence, they said. Council members also discussed the possibility of removing Thomas from his three committee assignments or adopting a resolution reprimanding him.
The five council members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the closed meeting, said they considered it unlikely that Thomas would go on leave. Should he remain on the council, Thomas would be entitled to vote Tuesday on a broad ethics reform bill, which passed a committee vote Monday.
Only Brown spoke publicly after the meeting, and he said only that every council member was given an opportunity to share concerns and offer “ideas and suggestions” on handling issues related to Thomas.
“I look forward to having a conversation with council member Thomas . . . so he’s clear on where his colleagues are and what they feel,” Brown said. It was unclear when the meeting would take place.
The meeting was closed to the media after the council voted to invoke an exception to the city’s open meetings law for the discussion of government personnel matters.
The five council members said Barry, Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) were skeptical that any action should be taken against Thomas before a criminal indictment or conviction. But other council members who have been publicly silent on the matter raised concerns that continued inaction would have a deleterious impact on the council’s reputation — especially as legislators take up ethics reform.
One member noted that in a previous closed-door meeting — held after Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan alleged in a civil lawsuit that Thomas had illicitly directed city funds for his personal use — Thomas had asked for time to exonerate himself, only to settle the lawsuit a month later with an agreement to pay the city $300,000.
Three members — David A. Catania (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — have publicly called for Thomas to resign.
Should Thomas appear at Tuesday’s meeting, it is unclear whether he would seek to vote on the ethics bill. His attorneys did not return a request for comment. Thomas was said to have been in his Wilson Building office Monday, but he did not attend the meeting of the Government Operations Committee, of which he is a member, as it took up the sweeping legislation.
For a time Monday morning, it was unclear whether the ethics bill would have enough support to go to the full council.
Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the panel’s chairman and lead author of the bill, introduced a rewritten version that incorporated several recommendations from a hearing last week. Her staff members sent the recast bill to fellow committee members late Friday, but Michael Brown objected, saying he had not had an opportunity to familiarize himself with the legislation.
Under council rules, there must be 24 hours’ notice of a meeting, and a council attorney said Bowser had met the requirements. Michael Brown protested that his legislative director was out of town Friday and asked for a 24-hour delay.
With council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) openly opposing the bill for creating what he called unnecessary bureaucracy, Michael Brown’s opposition could have meant a 2-to-2 deadlock, preventing the bill from moving to the full council and complicating hopes that the legislation might pass by the new year.
But while Michael Brown and Orange lodged their objections, Kwame Brown arrived and spoke in favor of moving forward with the bill. As chairman, he is entitled to vote on all committees.
After private consultation with Bowser and the exhortations of Catania, Michael Brown agreed to vote in favor of the bill “procedurally” to allow it to move to the full council.
With both Browns voting in favor, the measure passed 4 to 1 and is expected to receive an initial vote Tuesday. Orange sent a memo to his colleagues saying he was preparing substitute legislation.
Bowser’s bill includes several changes, including lowering the signature requirement to place the recall of an at-large council member on the ballot, and it would for the first time disqualify mayors and council members convicted of felony offenses while in office.
Currently, public officials are disqualified only when they are incarcerated for a felony. The change, however, would require an amendment to the city charter, requiring an act of Congress or D.C. voter approval.