D.C. COUNCIL member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has dropped his bid for a seat on the board of a nonprofit organization that funds youth organizations in the District. It was welcome news for a group that badly needs to exorcise any suggestion of politics from its grant-making. But Mr. Graham’s withdrawal doesn’t resolve all of the issues surrounding the group.
The DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.was last in the spotlight for its role in the theft by former council member Harry Thomas Jr. of more than $350,000 in city funds. Mr. Thomas, now serving a three-year federal prison term, used his influence to funnel city money through the trust to charities of his choosing, which in turn kicked back money to him. The trust also acceded to Mr. Thomas’s request to use $100,000 earmarked for youth services to fund an inaugural ball. An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office into Mr. Thomas’s scheme is ongoing, and we hope it will provide further answers into how these dubious decisions came about.
While no staff or board member have yet been implicated, the scandal — in which political influence determined how taxpayer dollars were distributed — called into question the operations of the trust, with some even calling for its abolition. The trust was created during former Mayor Anthony A. Williams’s administration as a means of leveraging public dollars to raise private money for groups serving D.C.’s young people. In its early years, the group managed to raise money from private foundations, but the combination of a poor economy and the politicization of the group dried up those funding sources, essentially making the trust a mere middleman in dispensing public monies. In 2011, the last year for which information, is available, the trust received more than $14 million in taxpayer dollars while only raising about $750,000 in private money.
An effort is underway to reform and revitalize the trust. All disbursements are subject to competitive bidding, and all grants must be approved by the full board, rather than staff. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) appointed the very capable Robert C. Bobb, the former city administrator for Mr. Williams, as chairman of the board, and an overhaul of trust management followed. An outside audit of past spending has been undertaken, and a report of its findings is expected soon.
Mr. Bobb’s unabashed opposition to Mr. Graham’s appointment to the board showed his commitment to establishing the independence of the trust, but it’s unclear whether that will be enough to ensure its future. The trust’s main reason for being is its ability to use public money to attract private funds; but if those private monies aren’t forthcoming, what purpose is served? Better to cut out the middleman and have the government do what it is supposed to — identify and prioritize public needs, and then fund them in an open and transparent way.