City Desk

Harry Thomas, Jr.: The Beginner’s Guide

With reports this morning of apparent FBI activity at the home of embattled D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., the long saga of the Ward 5 legacy politco may be reaching a new and dramatic stage.

For those of you just joining us: Allegations of misdeeds by a Thomas-run charity group called "Team Thomas"  have been floating around D.C. political circles for the better part of a year, prompting a legendary editorial crusade by the Washington Post.

In June, D.C.'s attorney general filed suit accusing the Democratic lawmaker and stalwart Vince Gray supporter of taking some $300,000 of money that was supposed to go to kids' charities and instead diverting it to personal use to pay for things like a luxury SUV. Washington City Paper's Alan Suderman reported the next month that other expenditures by the "Team Thomas" charity included golfing vacations and trips to Hooters—among other dubious expenditures contained in the sordid bank records obtained by City Paper. Thomas repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Late on a summer Friday afternoon—ie, prime bad-news-burying time—Thomas settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay back the money but not acknowledging misdeeds. The closest Thomas' statement came to a mea culpa was a lame acknowledgment that his organization hadn't been rigorous enough about bookkeeping, though even that was mitigated with an assertion that "it is not uncommon for grantees, including DC agencies receiving federal funds, to have expenditures disallowed."

Meantime, a federal investigation has proceeded. Though three of Thomas' D.C. Council colleagues have demanded his resignation, others in city government—including Gray, who made a big stink about ethics during his campaign last year—have stayed mum, perhaps out of calculations about the politics of race, party, and federal investigation. Perhaps aware of this calculus, Thomas this fall has re-emerged after keeping a low profile all summer. Just this week, he made a surprise appearance at a D.C. Council hearing on...ethics (he said he was for it).

If Thomas were to leave the council, it would also mark the end of a dynasty. Thomas' father, Harry Thomas Senior, was a legendary local pol, the closest thing Washington ever had to a Chicago-style machinist. A 1996 City Paper profile painted him as the loveable guy who could get your pothole filled with one call, or show up with money to keep your electricity on, but who rarely bothered to introduce bills, conduct oversight, or otherwise do his legislative job. The elder Thomas lost his seat in 1998 and died soon afterwards (read a lovely obit of the man here).

The younger Thomas reclaimed his old man's seat in 2006, becoming part of a trio of legacy pols on the council. Meanwhile, his four-paragraph official biography on the D.C. Council's website dedicates nearly an entire paragraph to Team Thomas, which it calls "a non-profit organization for social change, citizen empowerment, community development, and youth and senior program development."

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