- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Citing his “highest regard” for the District’s legislative body, council member Harry Thomas Jr. says he will step aside as chairman of a key committee as he fights a lawsuit accusing him of siphoning public funds for personal use.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown announced Mr. Thomas‘ decision at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“I have accepted his request,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Thomas‘ duties leading the Committee on Economic Development will be assumed by the council’s Committee of the Whole — a committee made up of the full 13-member council that will allow each member, including Mr. Thomas, to have some input.

The arrangement will continue until the end of the council’s summer recess.

“I will make further suggested changes at that time,” Mr. Brown said.

A letter from Mr. Thomas to the chairman had requested the assumption of duties by the Committee of the Whole.

“I make this request so as to allow the economic development functions of the Council to go forward free of any scrutiny that may be caused by the allegations raised against me by the Attorney General,” Mr. Thomas said in a three-paragraph letter. “I hold our institution in the highest regard. Therefore, any diminution of my personal prerogatives must be secondary to the Council and its perception among District residents.”

Mr. Thomas reiterated his right to defend himself against the “very serious” allegations and his belief in a “positive outcome and resolution for all involved.”

It is also his “full expectation” that he will be restored as chairman of the committee once the allegations are resolved, according to the letter.

The announcement capped a bizarre day of waiting for news about Mr. Thomas‘ fate, after Mr. Brown’s office indicated Tuesday that the issue would be addressed the next day.

After initial rumblings about an early afternoon announcement, reporters were told that the council chairman would issue a statement on the matter.

Mr. Brown’s statement finally was sent by email in the early evening, and neither he nor Mr. Thomas were available to discuss it.

Mr. Thomas is serving his second term representing Ward 5. His late father, Harry Thomas Sr., represented Ward 5 for three terms.

A civil complaint filed by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan on Monday accuses Mr. Thomas of bilking more than $300,000 in funds earmarked by the council in June 2007 for youth sports programs and $80,000 in private donations to pay for personal travel and an Audi sport utility vehicle.

The complaint says Mr. Thomas did this through a series of checks that were passed through multiple organizations to his nonprofit, Team Thomas, and for-profit business, HLT Development.

The government is seeking treble damages that amount to more than $1 million, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District confirmed it is investigating whether to file criminal charges in the matter.

While Mr. Thomas officially stepped down from his role heading the committee, it was only after he was urged to do so by colleagues at a closed-door meeting Tuesday, a source familiar with the proceedings said.

Loss of a committee chairmanship is a significant form of censure with recent precedent in D.C. politics.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray presided over one such instance as council chairman in March 2010. In that instance, the legislative body removed Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, as chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee after reports that he steered a city contract to a woman he had been involved with personally.

Mr. Gray said Wednesday that he had not spoken to Mr. Thomas or the current council chairman since the lawsuit was filed, and he declined to say what he would advise Mr. Brown to do.

“He has to make these decisions himself because he is the leader of the council,” Mr. Gray said.