Much about the 51st State Inaugural Ball, thrown by the D.C. Young Democrats on the night of President Obama’s swearing-in in 2009, was strange.
The location was strange — the halls of the John A. Wilson Building are not a ballroom in any sense of the word. The festivities were strange — there was no coat check, leaving attendees to carry around their heavy winter jackets, and no alcohol, because organizers could not get a liquor license for the government building.
And now we learn that the financing was strange, courtesy of documents released by federal prosecutors investigating former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.
Even with the cut-rate venue, sales of the $51 tickets barely began to pay for the costs of the ball, which included a performance by Chuck Brown. Faced with bills and a sizable funding shortfall, Thomas and his chief of staff, who led the D.C. Young Democrats at the time, sought more than $100,000 from the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.
The trust is a nonprofit, public-private collaboration set up by then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 1999 to take government money for out-of-school youth programs, combine it with private and philanthropic funds, and dole it out to worthy community organizations.
The trust’s executive director at the time, Millicent D. West, saw the ball as worthy indeed. According to the prosecutors’ filing, West worked with Thomas and his chief of staff to send $110,000 in trust money — which came out of a city fund for drug prevention and at-risk children — to pay for the party. West, wary of cutting a check to the Young Democrats, suggested that Thomas find another organization to handle the payment. He did, and the group filed paperwork nine days later that mentioned nothing about the ball.
West, who now heads the city’s emergency management agency, said she found nothing amiss with the spending.
“I didn’t see it as a political event,” she said. “From what I understood, the money was being used for a celebration calling young people together to celebrate a historic moment.” (For the record, this reporter recalls many, if not most, of the ball’s attendees being rather well-annuated.)
Thomas pleaded guilty last week to stealing more than $350,000, with every dollar funneled through the trust to nonprofits, which kicked them back to Thomas.
That the theft took place under the trust’s watch now appears to threaten its existence. Shortly after Thomas’s plea on Friday, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) called for the group to be shuttered. He modulated his position Tuesday, saying he supports efforts to prevent a reprise of the Thomas affair. “The trust clearly has some problems,” he said.
The Thomas prosecution appears to be the culmination of a three-year tailspin for the trust, a trajectory precipitated by the encroachment of politics on what was intended to be an independent grantmaking process. More and more money sent to the trust during the time Thomas was fleecing taxpayers came in the form of “earmarks” — grants directed by council members to favored groups, absent any competitive process. In fiscal 2009, for instance, council members directed funds to 47 groups.
During the same period, the trust was roiled by then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s move to bring its board more solidly under his control. He ousted two longtime board members with deep ties to the philanthropy community — Federal City Council chief executive John W. Hill and youth advocate Diane Bernstein — and replaced them with several of his political aides and the wife of a member of his running team. In the aftermath, outside funding dwindled while political meddling ran amok.
Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) had oversight of the trust at the time, and he pushed back hard Tuesday against the suggestion that he could have done more to prevent the theft. He said he implored the trust to improve oversight of grant funds and moved to curb his colleagues’ interference in grantmaking.
Wells said Tuesday that he was never told about the check cut for the inaugural ball and that no trust representative raised concerns about the grants that ended up in Thomas’s pockets. Fraud was the problem, Wells said — not the trust itself. “Part of the legacy of the criminal activity by [Thomas] cannot be losing the trust,” he said. “We cannot lose a valuable resource for children and families.”
He appears to have the backing of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who supports a thorough audit, already demanded by Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).
“You want to make sure every tax dollar is accountable,” said his spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro. “We can do that.”
Ellen London, who succeeded West as the trust’s executive director, said in a statement Monday that the group continues to serve thousands of city youth. “It is more important than ever that this work continue,” she said.
For Mike DeBonis’s previous columns, go to postlocal.com.