Next year, Comcast's franchise agreement to provide cable television services across Washington expires, so the cable giant has a keen interest in keeping D.C. lawmakers happy.
But until last week, the public had no way of knowing that Comcast, like dozens of other companies with business interests before D.C. lawmakers, poured cash into D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.'s charity. Indeed, only when the D.C. attorney general's office filed a fraud lawsuit calling the council members Team Thomas organization little more than a political and personal slush fund did the donors come to light.
If Mr. Thomas hadn't been sued, however, nobody would have known that companies doing business with the D.C. government were donating to a lawmakers pet charity. By contrast, in the federal government, donations from lobbyists or their clients to lawmakers' charities are public and searchable online.
"What went on with Harry Thomas is simply part of the influence game," said Craig Holman, legislative representative for the D.C.-based watchdog group Public Citizen. "The donors are throwing money at the feet of lawmakers. In most cases, the donations aren't about charity. They're not about helping children. It's all about influence."
Since the lawsuit was filed, Mr. Thomas has said he never did any favors for donors, and a spokeswoman for the cable provider declined to discuss why it gave Team Thomas so much money or whether it ever bothered to check to see whether it was tax exempt. At a press conference last week, Mr. Thomas vowed to refuse any settlement offers that would suggest wrongdoing on his part. Asked about accusations that he directed funds from youth programs for his personal use, he said, "Absolutely not."
The list of contributors to Team Thomas is a who's who of companies, law firms and developers eager to influence city lawmakers. Comcast topped the list with $10,000; by contrast, the maximum it could give under the law to Mr. Thomas' council campaign is $500.
Unity Health Care, which does business with the D.C. government, gave $1,000 to Team Thomas. Michelle Madison, chief executive officer for the Unity Health Care Foundation, said there was nothing political about the decision to donate. She said the foundation received a detailed solicitation that even referenced a so-called 501(c)3 number, referring to the Internal Revenue Service code governing charitable tax-exempt organizations.
"This truly was solely a charitable contribution," she said, adding that Unity was told the contribution would be used for youth sports. "This was not a political donation by any means. We only deal with reputable organizations, and we assumed this was."
In the future, she said, the foundation would more thoroughly vet the groups it supports to confirm tax-exempt status.
"This will never happen again," she said.
MedStar Health, which runs Washington Hospital Center in Mr. Thomas council ward, told The Washington Times last week that it, too, received a solicitation from the council members office referring to a tax-exempt identification number. Children's National Medical Center said it was launching an internal inquiry to find out whether the contribution it made to Team Thomas was appropriate, as well as to find out whether the money went to charitable purposes.
The civil complaint filed by the D.C. attorney general's office last week seeks nearly $1 million and accuses Mr. Thomas of misspending Team Thomas funds and public grant money, including nearly $60,000 that went toward the purchase of a 2008 Audi sport utility vehicle.
Among other Team Thomas expenditures uncovered by the attorney generals office were nearly $1,185 spent at a Las Vegas golf club, $1,073 for golf at Pebble Beach, Calif., and $1,602 at a Marriott Resort and Spa.
No matter how the case turns out, ethics watchdogs say, the fact the contributions went undisclosed for so long highlights broader problems.
"The public should definitely know if companies and individuals are giving money to an elected officials charity," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a campaign finance watchdog group in Washington.
"It doesn't mean that's going to have an impact, but the public needs to be able to evaluate their voting records and be able to come to their own conclusion."
Members of Congress have faced scrutiny for donations to charities they control from industries they oversee as lawmakers, Ms. Boyle said.
In 2009, The Washington Times reported that the pharmaceutical industry had directed large sums of money to a charity founded by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, with checks as large as $40,000, far exceeding what they could give to his campaigns.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, faced numerous ethics problems last year, including charges that he used official House stationery to raise money for an organization in his own name: Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service.
"Its something that's certainly not unheard of," Ms. Boyle said. "Its a way for lobbyists or contractors to gain a leg up and to buy access and influence."
Donors to Team Thomas ranged from businesses large and small across Washington, including many companies with issues before D.C. lawmakers. The Mannat Phelps law firm, which lobbies D.C. lawmakers, gave $1,000, as did one of its clients, the Rhode Island Avenue Metro LLC. The Carmen Group Inc. and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP each gave $1,000.
Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said a lawmakers charity provides a way for contributors to keep giving even when theyve hit the maximum donation under campaign finance limits.
"Many times when people have maxed out in campaign contributions theyre looking for another way to buy access, and making charitable contributions is a great way to do that," she said. "The donors are giving because they have obviously received the message, whether a wink and a nod or something more, that this is what will please a particular politician.
"Even if nothing illegal occurs, the public has to have the information to be able to make their own judgments."
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