Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Harry Thomas Jr. supported Mark Jones’s successful 2008 campaign to represent Ward 5 on the D.C. State Board of Education. Thomas publicly supported Robert V. Brannum in that race. This version has been corrected.
Using words such as “atonement,” “redemption” and “healing,” former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. said goodbye to a group of his closest supporters Friday, just days before he is set to start a federal prison term for stealing $353,000 in taxpayer funds.
About 200 people crowded into the send-off in the basement of Michigan Park Christian Church at Taylor Street and South Dakota Avenue NE, in the heart of the ward Thomas represented for five years. The program included nearly 20 minutes of remarks from Thomas — his first significant public comments since reading a statement of apology immediately after pleading guilty in January.
“I ain’t running for office — that’s not what this is about,” Thomas, wearing a black polo shirt, told the crowd. “This is about a community who has shown its love and support for a family and has forgiven me for what I have been through.”
Thomas, 51, is scheduled to report to a federal prison camp in Montgomery, Ala., on Wednesday. In May, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates sentenced him to 38 months for theft from federal programs and filing false tax returns. With good behavior, the earliest Thomas might be released is February 2015.
Among those gathered were three of Thomas’s former colleagues — Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). Three of Thomas’s attorneys and prominent union leaders also were there. But most in the crowd were longtime friends and supporters of Thomas, his mother and his late father, who had also served as Ward 5’s council member.
Mark Jones, who represents the ward on the D.C. State Board of Education, said the gathering was important to “help the ward and the community heal.”
“Everyone realizes that what he did was not a good thing,” he said. “But I don’t think we can move the ward forward unless we forgive him and say it’s done.”
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Marvin J. Owens Jr., read verses from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. You ought to forgive and comfort him so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
Before blessing Thomas and his family, Owens addressed him directly: “There is a road back. But don’t expect to come back to the same place. . . . God is now taking you in a different direction.”
In his remarks, Thomas did not repeat his earlier public apology but spoke in emotional terms about his faith and his family and thanked several attendees he said he’d relied on for personal support and others who had written letters in support of a lighter sentence.
Before Bates handed down his sentence, the judge said that the letters led him to impose a shorter term. Prosecutors had sought 46 months.
Thomas credited his attorneys with helping him to accept responsibility for his theft of funds that were earmarked for youth sports programs.
“A lot of people want to cut corners and figure out how money can get you out of things. But at the end of the day, there’s a higher power that must be accounted for,” he said. “The only way to get out of something is to stand up and be counted as a man.”
Thomas was joined and embraced by his wife, mother, teenage son and two young daughters. He asked the crowd “to look out for my family,” and a benefit fund was announced.
He said he’d been “humbled” by his prosecution. “In this city, there are people every day that are in situations like mine that don’t have what’s in this room,” he said. “When you go down to that courthouse, you have to be humbled. . . . I understand that God has already humbled me. There’s nothing they can do to humble me.”
Robert V. Brannum, a Democratic activist and a friend of Thomas’s, said the event was necessary to “start the healing process.”
“We need to learn to accept the contrition of others and move forward,” he said. “You stand with your friends, but that doesn’t mean you support any wrongdoing they did.”
Several supporters referred to themselves as part of a larger “family” supporting the Thomases. “Regardless of what’s going on, we’re Ward 5,” said Regina James, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member.
Barry said there was “no way I wouldn’t be here,” adding that “trials and tribulations are when friends and friendship come in.”
Barry, who spent six months in federal prison in 1991 and 1992 for cocaine possession, said he’d given Thomas “some insight about what it’s like inside.”
“One thing I told him: ‘Don’t count the days,’ ” he said.
Thomas didn’t directly address his crimes or his prison term in his remarks, but he told the crowd “don’t fear for me.”
“Focus on each other, respect each other, love each other, keep each other in your prayers and be dutiful in your faith to God,” Thomas said. “Don’t worry about me — Harry Thomas is coming home.”