- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2011

For years, D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. wrote checks out to “cash,” himself or his for-profit company for thousands of dollars from the bank account of a purported charity he ran, city attorneys say.

But D.C. records show Mr. Thomas never disclosed anything about those payments on sworn outside-income disclosure statements he turned in to city ethics officials over the years.

Mr. Thomas, for instance, wrote “none” in response to a series of questions on the ethics forms asking about his outside income during 2009. For 2008, he also listed no outside income. And for 2007, he wrote “N/A.”

But in a lawsuit this week accusing Mr. Thomas of running his Team Thomas charity essentially as a personal and political slush fund, the D.C. attorney general’s office said that from 2007 to 2009, Mr. Thomas wrote checks from the Team Thomas account “to himself, to his for-profit company HLT Development and to cash.”

What’s more, city lawyers said Team Thomas was never registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt organization, though his attorney said it was a nonprofit entity before being dissolved in 2010.

The fact that Mr. Thomas did not treat Team Thomas payments to himself or his company as outside income was not raised as an issue in the attorney general’s civil complaint.

Wesley Williams, a spokesman for the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, declined to discuss questions about the completeness of Mr. Thomas‘ disclosure forms Thursday, noting an active ongoing investigation by the office.

The campaign finance office confirmed the investigation in March in a letter to the D.C. Republican Party, which had filed a complaint about Mr. Thomas and Team Thomas over travel expenses and other issues.

The attorney general’s office referred its finding to the U.S. attorney’s office for suspected criminal charges. Federal prosecutors this week confirmed an active investigation, which they said was under way before the lawsuit became public.

Mr. Thomas has denied any wrongdoing and vowed to fight the lawsuit. In a news conference this week, he said he “absolutely” did not funnel monies meant for youth sports from the Team Thomas organization for his personal use.

On Thursday, the council member’s office referred questions about his financial disclosure forms to Mr. Thomas‘ attorney, who did not respond to messages by deadline.

The Office of Campaign Finance defines outside income as “any fixed payment at regular intervals for services rendered, self-employment and royalties for any publication.” On the annual outside-income statements, filed by all members of the D.C. Council, officials sign a statement swearing that the document is “true, complete and correct” to the best of their knowledge.

“I understand that the willful making of a false, misleading or incomplete statement can be grounds of civil and criminal prosecution,” Mr. Thomas attested to on his forms.

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog group in Washington, said no matter what the campaign finance office decides, Mr. Thomas could face more serious tax questions if he did not disclose income to the Internal Revenue Service.

“If he wrote these checks to himself, did he pay taxes?” she said.

Ms. McGehee also said the purpose of the financial disclosure statement isn’t for public officials to open the books to lay bare private details about their finances. Rather, she said, the statements let people assess any potential conflicts of interest that might arise given lawmakers’ other income sources.

In the case of Team Thomas, the organization was funded by donations from numerous corporate entities with business interests before the D.C. government, including Comcast and Verizon, and lobbying firms such as Mannat Phelps & Phillips LLP. It also received funds from a D.C. Council earmark passed through other organizations, according to the attorney general.

In addition to the Team Thomas checks he wrote to himself, his company and to cash, Mr. Thomas also used a Team Thomas debit card for entertainment expenses that bore no apparent connection to the group’s purported charitable purpose, according to the attorney general.

Under city law, members of the council - except the chairman, who is considered full time - are allowed to earn outside income in addition to their roughly $125,000-per-year city salaries.

D.C. rules require lawmakers to make public their outside-income sources only if an employer or client did business with the city government or stood to gain from pending legislation during the past calendar year.

By contrast, political appointees in the federal government sign ethics forms that must include all clients or employers who have paid the appointee more than $5,000 during a one-year reporting period - regardless of whether the employer or client did business with the government.

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