Upheaval at Thomas trust needs explaining

Graham: Firing of CEO ‘troubling’

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A nonprofit organization that former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. used as a pass-through to steal public funds from 2007 to 2009 needs to tighten its books, find more private dollars to complement its public funding and explain the recent firing of its president and CEO, council member Jim Graham said Monday.

Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, took a deep look at the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp.’s practices and spending during a budget hearing before his Committee on Human Services.

The trust, set up in 1999 to fund youth programs, has been impacted by a federal case that showed how Thomas used the organization to funnel funds to a golf-affiliated nonprofit, the Langston 21st Century Foundation, and two other organizations before pocketing funds. He pleaded guilty and faces prison time at his sentencing on May 3.

“Frankly the organization has been in upheaval for quite some time,” Mr. Graham said.

His committee is ramping up its examination of the flow of money at the trust — in an unusual turn, trust officials said Monday they planned to use $1.1 million in unspent funds from fiscal 2008 — and considering whether it needs to restructure the organization’s governance.

The trust’s board voted 3-2 to terminate its most recent president and CEO, Ellen London, earlier this month. But her interim replacement, retired D.C. Superior Court Judge Mary Terrell, and other executives who testified on Monday were not able to explain why.

Mr. Graham said the reason for her firing is unclear to him and that is “frankly very troubling,” although he has learned it has something to do with his committee’s report on the trust’s transactions with Langston 21. The report is due out “very soon,” the council member said.

To Mr. Graham’s chagrin, no one from the board showed up for the hearing.

The trust will receive $3 million under Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s budget plan for fiscal 2013, although only $2.1 million will go to programs after administrative costs.

Millions of dollars from federal scholarship grants and city agencies also pass through the trust to bring its financial responsibility up to more than $25 million, “virtually all of which is from government.”

“There have been virtually no private donations for several years,” Mr. Graham said.

Right now, he added, the public-private partnership looks like “a government agency with a 501(c)(3).”

Judge Terrell, who made it clear she is not interested in becoming the trust’s permanent CEO, said the trust is trying to attract more private dollars.

Committee member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, wondered if recent trouble surrounding the trust has cut off the flow of private funds.

“I wouldn’t say that it has halted,” said Ed Davies, the trust’s vice president of external affairs. “It certainly has raised concerns among some private funders.”

Some donors are satisfied with the positive results they are seeing from the trust, and some are waiting to see how things shake out in light of recent events, he added.

Despite recent turmoil, committee members said the trust fills a crucial need in the community.

“That need has not changed whatsoever, but we have had issues how the trust has worked with the government, and how the government has worked with the trust,” said council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat.

A long line of public witnesses testified in favor of the trust, touting its support for their programs and efforts to make sure the money is spent wisely.

“I am not on the warpath against community-based organizations, I assure you,” Mr. Graham said. “That is the furthest thing from my mind.”

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