- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2012

A public-private nonprofit that played a pivotal role in former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.’s theft of more than $350,000 from the city is expected to face tough questions from the council Monday.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said he will present “substantial questions” to the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp. in an oversight hearing before his Committee on Human Services. The questioning is expected to providing a window into the trust that Thomas, Ward 5 Democrat, used as a personal pass-through to embezzle funds earmarked for youth programs from 2007 to 2009.

Mr. Graham said that the trust requested some of the materials it submitted to the committee remain confidential, but that he will not honor the request when his staff drafts the final committee report.

“I have no intention of being limited,” he said recently.

Mr. Graham said Ellen London, the trust’s president and CEO, will testify first so trust advocates can hear her official comments before speaking to the committee.

Trust officials could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Graham thinks the trust is still active and issuing grants, even as speculation about it continues to swirl at city hall. Former trust CEO Millicent West recently stepped down as director of the city’s emergency management agency to avoid the “distraction” caused by events during her tenure at the trust.

Documents filed in federal court state Ms. West directed Thomas to choose a nonprofit other than the D.C. Young Democrats as a conduit for funding of an inaugural ball in January 2009 for President Obama. Ms. West has not been charged with any wrongdoing and has said she thought Thomas was seeking funding for a legitimate purpose that benefited youth. However, Mr. Thomas surreptitiously used the funds to reimburse himself for expenses related to the ball, prosecutors said.

The U.S. Attorney for the District, Ron Machen, shined a bright light on the trust in early January when he publicly outlined the investigation into Thomas’ activities a few hours after Thomas entered a guilty plea in federal court.

Aided by colorful charts, Mr. Machen described how the trust, identified as “Public-Private Partnership No. 1,” 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.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown was so disturbed by the presentation that he called for the elimination of the trust moments after Mr. Machen finished speaking.

“Clearly, he laid out some issues that were alarming and could not be ignored,” Mr. Brown said Friday.

Mr. Brown has not reiterated calls to shut down the trust, saying “we want to make sure children and families are taken care of.”

He has instead said the city should look at the findings of the D.C. auditor and other authorities before deciding what to do. Last month, Mr. Brown advised fellow members not to make inquiries into specific transactions by the trust, citing ongoing investigations.

“It seems like everyone is looking into this,” he said Friday.

Mr. Graham said the directive from Mr. Brown referred only to future requests. He said his staff had been looking into the trust since June and received much of the information it wanted from its prior inquiries.

Mr. Graham also said the hearing will allow his committee to explore the trust’s lapses and how they should guide future practices.

Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said the trust “needs a public airing” to discover why certain controls were not adequate to catch deceptive practices.

“There definitely was a lapse in those controls,” he said. “This is the topic of the hour, and there’s no use in running away from it.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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