Seated in a federal courtroom packed with reporters, family, friends and supporters of Harry Thomas Jr., who resigned from the D.C. Council and pleaded guilty Friday to felony embezzlement and tax fraud, sat a man who embodies the struggles of the blue-collar constituents Thomas was elected to serve.
While the public's attention was focused last week on Thomas' plea, his eventual sentencing in May and questions of who will replace him in Ward 5 — a council seat once held by his father and namesake — Zachary Sims said he attended the hearing for two simple reasons: to show support and respect for his elected representative and to see that justice was served.
Sims, 54, graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he played linebacker, and later played running back for the semi-pro Lorton Lions football team. Now an unemployed carpenter, he showed no emotion as U.S. District Judge John D. Bates described Thomas' "scheme" to steal federal grant money distributed by the District, to which Thomas replied, "Guilty as charged."
Afterward, just beyond the courthouse steps as a bank of TV cameras waited for Thomas to emerge, Sims acknowledged the political legacy that had been squandered — Harry Thomas Sr., known for his focus on constituent service with public buildings and a street named after him — and said he was satisfied the disgraced son "owned up to what he did and faced the music.
"I respect him for that," Sims said, adding, "I feel it's important to hold these public servants to a certain standard."
Sims knows about being held accountable. And he knows the pain of being turned away when forced to ask for help. Conceding that he had been "incarcerated half my life," Sims said he is a parolee and single father of three who has a 19-year-old son — he, too, named after himself — awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.
Sims first went to prison in the 1970s for armed robbery and, he said, last year he served 15 days in D.C. Jail for possession of expired prescription drugs.
He has been unemployed for two years, having last worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as a maintenance engineer. He said he has found it difficult to get hired on major construction jobs such as the Department of Homeland Security project at St. Elizabeths Hospital because of so many out-of-state hires, judging from the license plates on cars and trucks at various job sites.
But last year, when his gas was turned off and he asked Thomas' office for help with his bill, Sims said he was told there were no available constituent service funds.
"It's very frustrating and disconcerting," he said. "All I did to struggle to get back into society, and here he is with the power, and he never helped me with my gas bill. Now I see why."
Yet Sims said he harbors no resentment, noting that he scrapes by on Section 8 housing benefits and leads a simple life — if just barely. "I don't do nothing," he said. "I go out to do my business and then I stay in the house."
Not so with Zachary Sims Jr., who pleaded not guilty in July in the killing of 16-year-old Jamal Bell after a go-go themed graduation party in June 2010 at a Catholic church on Georgia Avenue Northwest. The younger Sims, a ward of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services at the time of the killing, is scheduled to stand trial in April.
"I went down to the council and pleaded with them to get that boy off the street," Sims Sr. said. "He was out of control."
Eyes shaded by dark sunglasses, Sims lit a cigarette and watched as Thomas and his entourage finally emerged and walked toward the TV cameras outside the Constitution Avenue entrance to the courthouse. After a brief statement, during which Thomas apologized to his constituents, the entourage, surrounded by the media pack, made its way to a waiting car.
Sims kept his distance and moved into the street, near the front of the car. He watched closely as Thomas slumped into the car and closed the door, and checked to see that the traffic was clear. Then he signaled to the driver with a wave of his hand that it was safe to leave.
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