A day after D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. was accused of directing more than $300,000 in taxpayer money for his personal use, several colleagues have privately suggested that he should relinquish his powerful chairmanship of the Economic Development Committee while the matter proceeds in the courts.
Thomas (D-Ward 5) told reporters early Tuesday that he is “going to do what’s best for this institution” but that he is not considering stepping down. “The subject matter here has nothing to do with my committee chairmanship,” he said in the John A. Wilson Building.
But after a closed-door afternoon meeting of the council’s 13 members, Thomas would not reaffirm that statement. In the meeting, convened by Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) after the day’s legislative business, several members said, they told Thomas he should step down from the panel pending the case’s outcome.
The meeting was closed to the media after the council members voted to take advantage of an exception in the city’s open-meetings law to discuss “matters relating to the employment of government employees, appointees, or officials.”
Three council members who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Brown’s wishes to keep the meeting private described a candid and somber tone. Thomas, who spoke first, did not directly address the allegations in Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan’s civil lawsuit but said he would be vindicated. Each member then spoke in turn, with several suggesting that Thomas’s continued leadership of his committee could be a distraction for the council.
After the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, Brown announced that no action would be taken until Wednesday. Changing committee assignments requires a majority vote of the council.
“We want there to be a process,” said Brown, who said he would have additional conversations with members Tuesday evening. “We want to move quickly, but we also want to be diligent about it.”
Privately, multiple council members said they are concerned that Thomas, who is accused of spending city money on a $60,000 sport-utility vehicle and various trips, could remain head of the panel, which exerts great influence over public and private development matters. Nathan’s lawsuit alleges that Thomas accepted more than $80,000 in undisclosed charitable donations to his “Team Thomas” nonprofit group — including from developers and other businesses that have or have had matters before the council.
Council members were measured in their public comments Tuesday. Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said he was “very upset” by the allegations. “If true,” he said, “he’s got to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
“It’s really serious,” said Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7). “I’ve known Harry personally for the most part of my life. I know the person he is. It will be very upsetting to me if these allegations are true.”
But Alexander said she did not think Thomas should have to give up any council responsibilities while the matter is investigated. “I don’t think the Economic Development Committee has anything to do with the allegations. Until the allegations are proven, I don’t think action should be taken.”
There is precedent for removing a committee chairman: Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) voluntarily relinquished oversight of the taxicab industry after his chief of staff was arrested in September 2009 on suspicion of accepting a bribe from taxi company owners. Graham has not been charged in the ongoing federal investigation. Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was stripped of the chairmanship of the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee in March 2010 after he was found to have given contracts to a girlfriend and directed earmarks to nonprofit groups he created.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who was council chairman during those episodes, declined to comment Tuesday, saying only: “We’ll see how this turns out.”
In Tuesday’s legislative business, the council approved a ward redistricting plan that eschewed an earlier proposal to split the “Hill East” neighborhood, now in Ward 6, with Ward 7. Under the plan given initial approval, however, the D.C. General Hospital campus and the D.C. Jail would shift to Ward 7.
Members also approved a bill that would establish a Department of Forensic Sciences, and confirmed directors for the Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking and the Office of Veterans Affairs. William P. White and Matthew J. Cary, respectively, were approved without objection.