- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A strip club that a community group says was illegally relocated and is creating an appetite for prostitution in Northeast Washington is co-owned by a major Democratic Party donor and local developer who contributed to a controversial charity run by D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., who represents the area.

Mr. Thomas said last week that Keith Forney of Forney Enterprises Inc. — a company that has received more than $90 million in D.C. construction funds since 2000 — is a donor to Team Thomas, the nonprofit organization Mr. Thomas founded in 2000 for “social change, citizen empowerment, community development and youth and senior program development.”

The D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is investigating whether Mr. Thomas unlawfully solicited charitable donations to the group, and a D.C. judge had ordered him to disclose financial records to the attorney general by Jan. 10.

Mr. Thomas‘ attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., said he is complying with the order, but Team Thomas does not have records of donors who contributed less than $1,000. The OAG has requested disclosure of all contributions greater than $250.

The Ward 5 Democrat declined to disclose the amount of Mr. Forney’s donation, insisting “it was minimal, at best,” while Mr. Cooke estimated that the contribution was less than $250. But neither Mr. Thomas, who recently was named to head the Council’s Committee on Economic Development, nor his attorney say they currently have plans to publicly disclose the Team Thomas information.

Former Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, who initiated the probe, has since resigned. Acting Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan declined to comment on the investigation.

News of the donation comes as a neighborhood group is protesting the relocation of Mr. Forney’s strip club, the Stadium Club, to a renovated warehouse in a Ward 5 commercial manufacturing zone near New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington. The neighborhood group is criticizing Mr. Thomas for what it sees as his tacit approval of the club’s illegal relocation.

“He is out of step with his constituents,” said Don Padou, president of the Ward 5 Improvement Association.

The unspecified Team Thomas donation is not the only aspect of Mr. Forney’s support for Mr. Thomas. Public records show that since 2008, Mr. Forney also has contributed $2,700 to Mr. Thomas‘ Ward 5 constituent-services fund.

Mr. Forney headquarters his construction and development companies in four separate office suites in a Northeast business plaza in Ward 5. D.C. records show that Team Thomas lists the same building as the nonprofit organization’s corporate address, although it does not specify a suite number. Mr. Cooke said Tuesday that Team Thomas relocated from that office years ago and could not say what suite it had occupied at the time.

Mr. Forney’s companies have worked on or completed construction and renovation projects across the city, including Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, Trinidad Recreation Center in Ward 5, the Ward 4 Senior Wellness Center, the University of the District of Columbia Van Ness Campus in Ward 3 and St. Elizabeths Hospital in Ward 8.

Forney Enterprises also was general contractor in the Deanwood Recreation Center and Library, the Kenilworth Recreation Center and Parkview Ballfield. Those projects, totaling more than $40 million, were investigated by Mr. Thomas after it was learned that the administration of former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty funneled the projects’ funding through the city’s housing authority, bypassing the council. The focus of Mr. Thomas‘ hearings was Banneker Ventures, a firm controlled by a fraternity brother of Mr. Fenty that acted as contract manager for the projects.

Mr. Forney also has received millions in federal defense contracts.

Yet it is his role as a roughly 50 percent owner of the Stadium Club and his contributions to Team Thomas that call into question the council member’s receptiveness to constituent concerns.

Stadium Club

When it opened in April, the Stadium Club — which features live nude dancing, private rooms and bottle service — received positive reviews for its premium steakhouse and upscale decor. Public records show that a holding company co-owned by Mr. Forney purchased the property for $2.7 million last March.

Mr. Forney testified before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) in August that he and his partner paid $5 million for the warehouse and the surrounding lot and invested $3 million to turn it into a “world-class establishment, something that D.C. can be very proud of.”

He did not respond to telephone calls, e-mail and multiple visits to his office seeking comment.

But the Ward 5 Improvement Association filed a protest with the ABC Board, charging that the Stadium Club should not have been allowed to open because D.C. law prohibits relocating a strip club from a business zone to a commercial manufacturing zone outside the District’s central business district. The club opened after assuming the liquor license of a defunct Southeast D.C. strip club.

“Despite community opposition, Mr. Thomas has failed to take any action to stop strip clubs from illegally locating in Ward 5,” said Mr. Padou, whose organization also is protesting another strip club being relocated to Ward 5. “The statute is clear: Strip clubs are only allowed to relocate to property with the same zoning as the one they left. Mr. Thomas is letting his zeal for development cloud his vision regarding these strip clubs.”

Mr. Thomas said he helped pass legislation to limit the number of nude-dancing establishments allowed in any one ward.

The group also asserts that the club violates city laws and its own rules by allowing nude dancers to get too close to patrons and that the club’s owners misled the ABC Board in describing its business.

For instance, the association said that when Mr. Forney told the ABC Board that the performers do not solicit drinks from patrons, he misrepresented the Stadium Club’s own written rules and policies, which direct strippers to “up-sell” alcoholic beverages by “talking the customers into buying a bottle of wine” to be shared with the women.

Citing affidavits filed by friends of the association — one of whom was reimbursed for his visit to the club — the association also claims that, despite club owners’ assurances to the ABC Board that nude dancers remain at least 3 feet from patrons at all times, the dancers routinely dance on tabletops within 3 feet of the customers and provide lap dances in violation of D.C. law.

The Stadium Club’s owners have insisted that they offer a customer-friendly, safe and law-abiding experience.

The ABC Board has yet to rule on the Aug. 4 protest hearing.

Meanwhile, the association has filed a separate protest to the Stadium Club’s certificate of occupancy to the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), claiming it is a sexually oriented business, as opposed to a restaurant and nightclub that are classified by the D.C. zoning administrator as non-sexually oriented businesses. They point to the lap-dance affidavits and a statement by one of Mr. Forney’s partners to the ABC Board in 2009 that referred to the club’s VIP rooms reserved for private experiences with dancers as “bedrooms.”

The BZA held a hearing on Oct. 26 and has yet to issue a final ruling.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) India Henderson has been to the Stadium Club and says it is “an attractive-looking establishment.” But Ms. Henderson said she is concerned that the sexually explicit nature of the club’s activities is feeding the demand for prostitution in the area once the club has closed.

“If you come through the area late on a Saturday night, you will gladly find prostitutes on Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue,” she said. “Inevitably, some of their business comes from strip clubs.”

Mr. Thomas said the most vocal opponents of the Stadium Club “aren’t even directly affected by it.” He said the matter is properly before the ABC Board and the BZA, and he criticized the Ward 5 Improvement Association for failing to gain sufficient support from the ANC. He also dismissed Ms. Henderson as a proxy for her mother, former ANC Commissioner Kathy Henderson, who ran against him in last year’s election.

As for Mr. Forney’s involvement with a strip club business, Mr. Thomas said: “Many business owners diversify. Mr. Forney is a certified minority contractor and competes for city contracts on a competitive basis. He’s shown support for community issues and been a responsible business owner. Those are the issues that represent to me what he does as a businessman.”

Political connections

According to city records, Mr. Forney has received multimillion-dollar contracts from more than a half-dozen D.C. agencies in the past decade, including the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, and the Department of Mental Health. Since 2000, the District has paid his firm $93.5 million, according to figures released by the office of the chief financial officer.

Since 2002, Mr. Forney has contributed a total of more than $25,000 to candidates for elected office in the District. He, his company and its employees contributed at least $10,000 to the unsuccessful Fenty re-election campaign.

Mr. Forney also is a “major corporate partner member” of the National Association of Minority Contractors and has received more than $5 million in federal contracts since 2000, including more than $2 million in stimulus-funded contracts, according to Recovery.org and the nonprofit federal budget monitor OMB Watch.

Since 2008, Federal Election Commission records show that he and his company have given more than $62,000 to the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic parties in Maryland and Virginia, and Democratic causes and candidates, including President Obama.

But it is his unspecified “minimal at best” contribution to Team Thomas that may be worthy of more answers, given that the OAG determined in December that the organization “unlawfully solicited charitable donations without a license.”

The extent of the Forney-Thomas relationship is unclear. They share a passion for golf, and both are involved in charity fundraisers at Langston Golf Course. Mr. Forney has been a corporate sponsor of the Jimmy Garvin Legacy Foundation tournament the past several years, according to Mr. Garvin, the event’s founder. And Team Thomas has held similar charity events at the same golf course, which Mr. Thomas calls his home course, Mr. Garvin said.

Mr. Thomas said Mr. Forney’s role in the Team Thomas charity golf tournaments is limited to that of “participant.”

Both men belong to the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, and Mr. Thomas and his wife were seated at a table purchased by Mr. Forney at the recent inauguration of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, also an Omega. Mr. Cooke said Mr. Thomas and his wife purchased their own tickets to the event and spent time at a number of different tables.

Since 2008, Mr. Forney has contributed at least $11,000 to Mr. Baker’s campaigns, and Forney Enterprises Inc. was listed as a “Platinum Path” sponsor on the county’s inauguration website, with a $15,000 contribution.

One of Mr. Forney’s companies, Omega Gold Development Group, received $900,000 in unused federal grant money from the Prince George’s County Council in October to build affordable housing for low-income families. The funds were left over from a HOME Investment Partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a source of funding at the center of an ongoing probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland of former County Executive Jack B. Johnson, also an Omega.

Mr. Thomas has dismissed the Team Thomas probe as politically motivated, but it’s not the first time his ties to developers have raised questions. The Office of Campaign Finance admonished Mr. Thomas in December 2009 for allowing a staff member to co-found and work for a nonprofit that received money from a developer with business before the city.

An investigation concluded that Mr. Thomas did not violate D.C. law when a developer gave the nonprofit a $40,000 contribution a day before the council member submitted a letter to the zoning commission offering his support for the developer’s project.

Team Thomas has long been a part of Mr. Thomas‘ fundraising apparatus, said a staffer with the council member’s 2006 campaign who is familiar with the fundraising efforts. While Mr. Cooke called the assertion “untrue,” the staffer told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity — because their work brings them into contact with the D.C. government — that developers contributed to Team Thomas during the ‘06 campaign.

“If a developer didn’t want to contribute to his campaign fund, they made the check out to Team Thomas,” the staffer said.

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