- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2012

Former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to felony counts of stealing more than $350,000 in city funds and failing to report income on his tax returns.

Thomas, who resigned his position Thursday night after prosecutors officially charged him with the crimes, faces between 37 and 46 months in prison when he is sentenced on May 3, according to federal sentencing guidelines.

Under the federal system, he must serve all of his term with the possibility of a “modest reduction” for good behavior.

Thomas‘ wife and his mother — who nodded as she read from a Bible before the hearing — sat in the second row of U.S. District Judge John D. Bates’ packed courtroom.

“Guilty as charged, your honor,” Thomas told the judge when asked for his plea.

After the hearing, Thomas emerged from the federal courthouse where a throng of reporters, cameras and supporters awaited him. His eyes focused down on a piece of paper, he read from a statement issued Thursday night, apologizing to his family, his constituents and his colleagues. Afterward, Mr. Thomas did not take questions and was hustled to a waiting car.

Prosecutors on Thursday filed documents in U.S. District Court for the District accusing Thomas of stealing $353,000 from youth baseball programs from April 2007 to February 2009 and failing to report a total of $346,000 in additional income on three successive tax returns. It was the first time a sitting council member has been charged with a felony.

In the afternoon, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and council Chairman Kwame R. Brown called on Thomas, who was first elected in 2006, to resign. But a voluntary resignation was already a stipulation of a plea agreement released Friday that Thomas had signed on Dec. 23,

U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said Thomas‘ criminal conduct began shortly after he took office in 2007 and “can only be described as a flagrant abuse of the public’s trust.”

“Time and time again, Thomas used for personal gain taxpayer funds that were intended for the city’s most important resource — its children,” Mr. Machen said at an afternoon press conference.

Federal officials used colorful charts to describe how Thomas funneled public funds through three organizations to fund a lavish lifestyle that included $19,000 for travel, $7,000 for clothes, $5,000 for meals, $23,745 for a Victory motorcycle and $58,575 toward an Audi sport utility vehicle.

Federal agents seized the motorcycle and a Chevy Tahoe, which Thomas acquired when he traded in the Audi, during a raid on his Northeast home on Dec. 2.

Mr. Machen flatly rejected the notion that Thomas was targeted because he is a black politician.

“That’s ludicrous,” he said. “We go after people that break the law.”

Thomas will be required to pay back the money he stole from the District as part of the settlement of a civil lawsuit in June that was brought by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan. That lawsuit claimed Thomas used his position to take the funds earmarked for youth sports through the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation to purchase the luxury vehicle and pay for trips or other personal expenses.

Mr. Machen said the attorney general did a “great job” in laying the foundation for the case, although his office took a “deeper, broader” look and outlined a timeline involving two additional organizations, identified in court papers as Organizations 1 and 3, that received funds from the CYITC — referred to as a “public-private partnership” — at the request of Thomas.

Organization No. 2 referred to the Langston 21st Century Foundation, which had been named in the attorney general’s lawsuit and is linked to a golf course in Ward 5.

Information in charging documents also suggests former staff members and the additional organizations could face sanctions for involvement in Thomas‘ scheme.

“The investigation continues,” Mr. Machen said, declining to elaborate.

Federal officials say Thomas, in one instance, used $7,500 in funds from a tax-form checkbox that goes to the Public Fund for Drug Prevention and Children at Risk to reimburse himself for funds his for-profit company, HLT Development, had expended on the 51st State Inaugural Ball, a party thrown at the John A. Wilson Building on Jan. 20, 2009.

Charging papers say the political organization known as “Public Organization 1” had organized the inaugural ball. The event was hosted by the District of Columbia Young Democrats.

The court documents say Millicent West, who directed the CYITC from July 2008 to October 2009, told Thomas and a staff member that it would be difficult to transfer money to a political organization and that staff would have to change the name of the entity that would receive the funds.

Ms. West, who now heads the D.C. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said in a phone interview Friday that she expected Thomas to find another entity that met the requisite criteria for the funding to pay bills relating to an event that gave youth the chance to celebrate a significant moment for the nation.

“At no point did I anticipate that funds were going to be directed to any individuals for any services performed,” she said.

The filing of false reports to the CYITC is “very troubling,” she said, and “it tarnishes the reputation of an organization that has always done good work.”

Ms. West said she is disappointed to hear her name come up in connection with the Thomas investigation, asserting she approached the job with integrity and significantly reduced the director’s salary when she took the job.

Nevertheless, details released in charging documents are placing renewed scrutiny on the CYITC.

“It needs to be closed,” Mr. Brown, the council chairman, said of the trust at a Friday council meeting. “It needs to be done.”

Several council members noted the trust meets many children’s needs, but the D.C. auditor and D.C. inspector general should take a deep look into the trust’s activities in recent years.

Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, said she has looked into the matter and is concerned the auditor not moving fast enough.

“What we’re looking at is a process that was seriously flawed at least insofar as these particular grants,” said council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat who currently oversees the trust.

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat who has encountered legal troubles of his own, asked his colleagues to remember the toll the plea has taken on Mr. Thomas‘ family ahead of sentencing.

And council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat and the only elected official to attend the plea hearing, said the council should not act on Ward 5 matters without talking advice from its residents.

“No one wants to short change Ward 5,” Mr. Brown said.

The ward will have to wait a few months before it has a new council member. Under D.C. law, a special election is scheduled  on the first Tuesday after more than 114 days from when the Board of Elections and Ethics declares a vacancy.

The issue would go before Ward 5 voters on May 15, although Mr. Brown said he will see if there is any way to save money by making the special election coincide with the District’s April 3 primary.

The five members of Mr. Thomas‘ personal staff lost their jobs with the council member’s departure. A former Thomas staffer who has been named in connection with the investigation was terminated on Friday from his job with the Committee of the Whole, according to Mr. Brown.

Mr. Thomas‘ mounting legal troubles had been a major distraction to the council throughout 2011, a year with criticism of Mr. Gray’s hiring practices and a federal investigation into whether his associates paid a minor mayoral candidate to bash then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on the campaign trail.

The U.S. attorney’s office is also investigating whether the 2008 re-election committee for Mr. Brown engaged in financial irregularities that amount to criminal activity.

“Am I worried I’m next?” Mr. Brown said Friday. “No.”