- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The D.C. Council’s first legislative session of 2012 was overshadowed Wednesday by the conspicuous absence of Harry Thomas Jr., whose empty seat on the dais fueled speculation of an imminent plea deal on accusations that he spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on himself.

A late-night report that Mr. Thomas, a Democrat, planned to step down sent reporters scurrying around the John A. Wilson Building on Wednesday ahead of the morning’s legislative session.

Television crews cornered his colleagues to get their thoughts on the situation and find out whether Mr. Thomas planned to show up to weigh in on various measures before the council. But the District’s top elected officials said they know of no plans for Mr. Thomas to resign or of any deal with federal prosecutors.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray said he has not spoken with Mr. Thomas since before Christmas and does not know “what his thinking is at this stage.”

“This whole thing is just an enigma to me,” Mr. Gray said of Mr. Thomas‘ troubles. “It’s just an absolute puzzle.”

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said he last spoke with Mr. Thomas several days ago and received no indication that he would resign.

“I have not heard anything at all,” he said.

Mr. Thomas has faced increasing scrutiny since he agreed to pay the District $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan last summer that accused him of bilking funds earmarked for youth baseball to buy a luxury sport utility vehicle and pay for trips, among other personal expenses.

Federal agents raided his home Dec. 2 and seized an SUV and a motorcycle, the first tangible sign that a criminal probe against him may be ramping up.

Mr. Thomas did not show up for the council’s legislative meeting in the wake of a report by WUSA-TV (Channel 9) that said he is expected to resign from the council and finalize a plea deal with federal prosecutors that calls for prison time.

The report attributed the information to “close associates” of the council member.

Mr. Thomas‘ attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

Before the legislative meeting, Mr. Brown said he did not know whether Mr. Thomas would report to the John A. Wilson Building on Wednesday.

“I always expect him to come to work,” he said. “He may or may not be here, I don’t know.”

Mr. Thomas is not up for re-election until 2014. He won re-election in 2010 with 62 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and 84 percent in November’s general election.

If he resigns, a special election would take place within months. Under D.C. law, ward voters would go to the polls on the first Tuesday after more than 114 days from when the Board of Elections and Ethics declares a vacancy.

Because of the time needed to circulate petitions for candidates, it is unlikely the Ward 5 seat would make the April primary ballot, even if Mr. Thomas resigns in the coming days.

Mr. Brown said the council will ensure that Ward 5 residents’ needs are met should Mr. Thomas resign, “just like when Mayor Gray became chairman and we made sure Ward 7 still had representation while there’s a special election.”

Mr. Thomas‘ legal issues and the federal investigations into the campaign activities of Mr. Gray in 2010 and Mr. Brown in 2008 were among the catalysts for sweeping ethics reform the council passed Dec. 20.

The council Wednesday approved an emergency form of the bill crafted by Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, to speed up its implementation.

Specifically, it will allow Mr. Gray to appoint three members to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability within 45 days, implement new restrictions on constituent services funds, and speed up the charter amendment process that allows D.C. voters to weigh in on whether elected officials should be disqualified from office for a felony conviction and whether they approve of the council’s new procedure for expelling a council member.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said he did not support the emergency bill, much like he did not vote for the permanent bill, because it does not go far enough in cracking down on certain campaign finance practices.

He also rejected the notion that news reports were driving his colleagues’ actions on ethics reform.
“To blame this on the media really doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said, “because the media did not refer three of our cases to the U.S. attorney.”

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