Opinion writer

Jeffrey E. Thompson, a central figure in the federal investigation of D.C. corruption, may remain the darling of the city’s political and entrepreneurial classes and of prominent members of the criminal defense bar. He is also in the good graces of folks in his native Jamaica. But for many District residents who play by the rules and have to pay the freight of government, Thompson looms as nothing less than a public menace.

He’s tooling around town, free as a bird, facing city lawsuits up the wazoo but uncharged with any crime. Thompson has, however, left in his wake a string of financially stressed health-care providers and a compromised campaign finance system, both of which the city will have to rescue.

The Post’s recent portrait of Thompson as the son of a working-class Jamaican couple who traveled up to the big city of Washington and made good captured his life story. At least, most of it.

Certainly the folks in his home town of Bull Savannah, Jamaica, have reasons to feel good about him. The Post’s Nikita Stewart, who wrote the in-depth look at Thompson’s life, visited the island’s St. Elizabeth parish and reported accounts of his generosity toward those he and his family left behind: $30,000 donated to his primary school, various contributions to people in hard luck. A virtual Santa Claus ’tis he, the story goes.

The same is true in this city. District politicians line up to sing his praises.

“He came from nothing,” former mayor Anthony A. Williams swooned in The Post’s account. “I always admired him.”

“He was big-hearted,” said former mayor and current D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), referring to Thompson’s willingness to hire people with political ties.

Vincent Orange (D), an at-large council member who has accepted thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from Thompson, said that for years he did not question the payments — which he later deemed suspicious — because of Thompson’s good reputation.

Would that some of the thoughtfulness Thompson showed to friends and family extended to District taxpayers. As things stand, we are going to have to dig into our precious contingency reserves to clean up the financial mess created by Thompson’s failed D.C. Chartered Health Plan.

To recall, as I wrote last month, Chartered cratered over the past year, leaving health-care providers around the region with unpaid bills in the millions.

This week the city agreed to pay $48 million to settle those accounts. Where’s the money coming from? Cash reserves created with tax dollars — yours and mine.

The appointed receiver for Chartered Health Plan sued Thompson in May to get back $17 million he allegedly siphoned from the company, The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported. Good luck with that.

Good luck, too, to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., who is devoting time, talent and treasure to unearthing political corruption in this city — in which Thompson may have played a key role.

Illegal campaign donations, the use of straw donors, buying (or renting) politicians — the stinking mess is all there, waiting to be presented to a judge and jury at an opportune moment.

Why didn’t we see this coming?

Early signs popped up 15 years ago.

Because of allegations of procurement improprieties at the D.C. Financial Control Board in 1998, two House subcommittees, chaired by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.), asked the then-General Accounting Office to determine if proper regulations and procedures were followed in awarding and administering contracts to the accounting firm Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio and Associates, where Jeff Thompson was co-founder and majority owner. The firm had been hired to audit the control board’s financial statements and D.C. public school enrollment.

The GAO found that the control board had not documented its basis for selecting Thompson’s company for any of the three contracts it received. There was no written record, the GAO said, that allowed it to “determine whether the awards were made at the lowest cost or best value and whether offerers were treated fairly.”

In response, the control board’s former executive director told the GAO that “he awarded the three contracts to Thompson [etc.] based on recommendations from the board’s contracting staff and his personal knowledge and experience with the firm.”

Arm’s-length and competitive? Ha! (John W. Hill, former control board executive director, confirmed to me this week that he awarded the three contracts to Thompson’s auditing firm.)

One more thing: Sharp-eyed Kathryn Sinzinger of the now-defunct publication the Common Denominatorreported in April 2001 that, seven days before the GAO report was issued, Thompson donated $1,000 to Istook’s campaign committee.

She also reported that a financial disclosure report filed Jan. 15, 2001, by the Tom Davis Victory Fund showed that D.C. Chartered Health had donated $10,000 and that Chartered’s parent company, DC Healthcare Systems, also owned by Thompson, had donated $1,000.

Why didn’t we see it coming?

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.