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Donors seek answers on Thomas’ charity

Team never registered as a tax-exempt group, suit claims

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When MedStar Health executives received an email from the office of D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. seeking a charitable donation in late 2007, officials said they had little reason to question whether Mr. Thomas' charity was real.

Indeed, the solicitation sent on behalf of "Team Thomas" included a so-called 501(c)3 tax-identification number, along with a detailed statement about the group's work "offering youth the opportunity to participate, enjoy and excel."

"There was even a flier for a holiday party for children," said Jean Hitchcock, corporate vice president for public affairs at MedStar, which runs Washington Hospital Center in Mr. Thomas' council ward. "To us, this was about helping underprivileged children in the area, so we decided to make the contribution."

But more than three years after making the $5,000 donation, officials at the health care organization are concerned they might have been hoodwinked.

They're not alone in having once supported Team Thomas. Dozens of organizations, including several with legislative issues before the D.C. government, contributed more than $80,000 combined to Team Thomas over the years. None of the donations was disclosed to the public.

Despite a reference to tax-exempt status in the fundraising solicitation obtained by The Washington Times, Team Thomas was never registered as a tax-exempt organization with the Internal Revenue Service, according to a fraud lawsuit filed this week against Mr. Thomas by the city's attorney general.

Mr. Thomas has denied any wrongdoing.

The civil complaint seeks nearly $1 million and accuses Mr. Thomas of using Team Thomas as a personal and political slush fund and misusing private donations and public grant money, including nearly $60,000 that went toward the purchase of a 2008 Audi sport utility vehicle. It also says more than $300,000 in funds from a D.C. Council earmark were funneled to Team Thomas and HTL Development, also controlled by Mr. Thomas and based at his house.

Among other Team Thomas expenditures that the attorney general's office uncovered were nearly $1,185 spent at the Bali Hai Golf Club in Las Vegas, $1,073 for golf at Pebble Beach, Calif., and $1,602 at a Marriott Resort and Spa.

"We're conducting an investigation on our end to make sure that the funds were donated appropriately and that the funds were used appropriately," said Jacqueline Bowens, spokeswoman for Children's National Medical Center, which also donated $2,500 to Team Thomas in 2008.

Other donors weren't as eager to talk. The Washington Convention and Tourism Corp., which gave $1,000, told The Washington Times to file a Freedom of Information Act request for information about its donation to Team Thomas.

Mr. Thomas has vowed to fight the lawsuit and has sharply denied any wrongdoing. The U.S. attorney's office also is investigating. Mr. Thomas' attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., said on Tuesday that the fundraising solicitation that noted a 501(c)3, or tax exempt, number may have been at a time when Team Thomas had an application pending seeking that status from the IRS.

Also referred to on the solicitation is "tax ID number." According to the attorney general, Team Thomas was co-founded by Mr. Thomas in 2000 and dissolved in 2010, and he was the only person with check-writing authority for Team Thomas' checking account. The articles of incorporation for Team Thomas said the corporation was organized for charitable and educational purposes.

Mr. Cooke said Team Thomas initially sought tax-exempt status but eventually reconsidered. He said the fundraising solicitation may have been sent at a time when the group's tax-exempt application was pending but before it was abandoned. He said Team Thomas was a nonprofit entity, but it did not have tax-exempt status.

"I think the attorney general's office operating premise is fundamentally incorrect," he said of the lawsuit, adding that Team Thomas spent funds on youth-related activities, including baseball clinics.

Tax analyst Dean Zerbe, former special counsel for the Senate Finance Committee who has investigated nonprofit abuses, said he would be surprised that anybody falsely held themselves out to be a tax-exempt charity when it's not difficult to register with the IRS in the first place.

"In essence, it's committing a fraud," he said. "And it's all the honest charities that suffer."

In a phone interview, Ms. Hitchcock said the fact that the Team Thomas solicitation included a 501(c)3 identification, referring to the Internal Revenue Service code governing tax-exempt groups, suggested that it indeed was a tax-exempt organization. She said that was an important factor for MedStar in deciding whether to give money to Team Thomas.

The fundraising solicitation was sent to MedStar on Dec. 17, 2007, from a D.C. Council email account from Ayawna Chase, listed at the time as Mr. Thomas' director of constituent services. She is now his chief of staff, according to records provided by MedStar.

The solicitation included a mission statement outlining Team Thomas' work and referred to agreements it had with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to run camps year-round over a five-year period.

"Historically, inner city youth have not been afforded the opportunities many suburban children benefit from based on the quality of equipment and expertise of training," a program description included with the funding request from Team Thomas stated.

From Coca Cola to Maurice Electrical Supply, donors to Team Thomas ranged from businesses large and small across Washington. Several have 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. Cable giant Comcast gave $10,000. A Comcast spokeswoman said the company was not commenting on the Team Thomas suit Wednesday.

Mr. Thomas separately is facing a lawsuit filed by the federal government over thousands of dollars in unpaid student loans. Vandy Johnson, the lawyer representing him in that ongoing case, filed in federal court in Washington, was listed in a December 2007 fundraising solicitation for Team Thomas.

Others listed on the Team Thomas board at the time were relatives of Mr. Thomas and people whose ties to Washington were not immediately clear, including a parks official in Georgia and an official from a softball league in California.

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