Employees at a nonprofit organization that former council member Harry Thomas Jr. used as a conduit to steal from the city raised concerns about fast-tracked grants and the risk of becoming a "check-on-demand kind of place," according to testimony at a D.C. Council oversight hearing on Monday.
Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, made it clear he does not want to terminate the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. — citing its assistance to youth programs since 1999 — but emails about Thomas' projects raised questions as to how the disgraced legislator was able to pocket $350,000 in earmarked funds that passed through the public-private partnership.
"Something happened here, and we're going to pursue what that is," Mr. Graham said at the hearing before his Committee on Human Services.
Mr. Graham questioned Ellen London, president and CEO of the trust, on Monday about warning signs in 2007-09 under her predecessors, potential political pressures that led to faulty oversight of grants funds, and the reforms designed to prevent any more problems.
Ms. London took the reins at the trust in November 2009, yet many of Mr. Graham's most pressing questions concerned an earlier period.
Her immediate predecessor, Millicent West, recently stepped down as director of the city's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to avoid the "distraction" caused by events during her tenure at the trust. She did not attend the hearing, but her name came up numerous times.
Ms. London has been employed by the trust since 2000 and was part of an "email loop" that showed a willingness to look the other way when Thomas' staff asked for certain grants to be issued, despite inadequate documentation.
"You must have an impression of this period of time," Mr. Graham said to Ms. London, who was a communications and government relations officer for the trust at the time. "I wouldn't put you on the spot unless you were involved in virtually every email concerning this matter."
Mr. Graham noted that staff members raised their eyebrows at the lack of documentation and program descriptions related to an earmarked grant that Thomas' staff directed to the Langston Century 21 Foundation, a golf-related nonprofit that Thomas used to siphon off the lion's share of the stolen funds.
"Again, it's the rest of the staff saying there's something wrong here," Mr. Graham said.
Ms. London said she could not recall conversations, outside of email, in which they questioned lenient practices under Ms. West or described political pressure to push incomplete grant proposals.
She also turned away certain questions from committee members, citing ongoing investigations into the parties associated with Thomas' crimes.
In her prepared remarks, Ms. London said the trust has made great strides in its reporting requirements and noted, "thankfully," that earmarked grants were banned in fiscal 2010.
Council members also floated ideas about how to restructure the trust, if necessary, including a city commission of some kind.
The trust has been under intense scrutiny in recent months after a lawsuit by the D.C. attorney general and a federal criminal investigation resulted in a guilty plea from Thomas and a likely prison sentence.
Prosecutors in court papers described how the trust doled out money to several organizations at Thomas' direction, paving the way for him to redirect funds to his for-profit and nonprofit organizations, then pocket the money.
The Washington Times has since raised further questions about spending at the trust, which handed more than $100,000 to other groups not registered as nonprofits and others that don't exist in city records. The Times also reported that in early 2009, while facing a multimillion-dollar deficit, the group decided to pay more than $400,000 to a Kentucky company to rent a giant heated tent and other equipment for RFK Stadium during the week of President Obama's swearing-in.
Witnesses from groups that rely on the trust lined up to testify in support of its existence and budgetary needs at the hearing.
Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown had suggested the trust should be shut down in the wake of Thomas' plea. Since then, he has emphasized the vital services the trust provides to children and families and called for patience while investigators look at the issue.
"We're at a crossroads," council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said Monday. "And we have to be very thoughtful."
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