Loose Lips

Debt Limit

Who Will Pay $300,000 Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. Owes D.C.?

Anyone looking for resolution in the settlement between Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. and the D.C. attorney general last week was probably as disappointed as LL was when he slogged through the last season of Lost.

Thomas agreed to pay the District back $300,000 from an earmark for youth baseball programs that Attorney General Irv Nathan alleged Thomas steered to himself. (Nathan says Thomas’ nonprofit then spent the money on an Audi SUV, golf trips, and dinner at Hooters, among other expenses.) Settlement notwithstanding, Thomas maintained that he had not purposefully misspent any city money.

The only problem, Thomas said in a statement, was that “the discipline and strenuous rigors that I teach through coaching and mentoring were lacking in the management of the organization.” (Never mind that there were two organizations controlled by Thomas that received city money, according to Nathan.)

That flimsy excuse has been enough to satisfy some of Thomas’ colleagues on the council, while three others have called on him to resign.

Thomas, of course, isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is currently investigating his behavior, and one of the most common guessing games in D.C. political circles is whether and when criminal charges will come down the pike.

The threat of a federal prosecution is apparently too much to bear alone for the ubiquitous Fred Cooke Jr., who in addition to representing Thomas also represents Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown and is Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s go-to attorney. Thomas beefed up his legal team by hiring star defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, whose high-profile clients include numerous senators and congressmen (and, during his impeachment, President Bill Clinton), disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Steven Seagal, star of Under Siege.

We should all be so fortunate to afford such excellent legal representation. But it turns out Thomas isn’t lucky—he’s just another elected official able to take advantage of the District’s weak laws, which allow unnamed donors to give unlimited amounts outside the campaign finance system. Earlier this week, The Examiner reported Cooke was in the process of setting up a legal defense fund for Thomas that would be run by an anonymous trustee. Lobbyist and Thomas confidante John Ray said he’ll help raise money for the fund. This means people with business before the city could be helping Thomas pay back what he owes and cover his legal bills.

After all, fancy pants lawyers like Lowell don’t come cheap. And the $300,000 that Thomas has to pay back over two-and-a-half years is nothing to sneeze at, either. On Friday, the same day the settlement was finalized, Thomas had to turn over $50,000 to the D.C. Treasurer. But the check didn’t come from Thomas himself. The remitter on the check, according to the Office of the Attorney General, was Cooke’s law firm.

Details of the legal defense fund are still sketchy at this point. Cooke didn’t return multiple calls for comment. LL played phone tag with Ray. And when asked whether he’ll be using a legal defense fund to pay the city its $300,000, Thomas said, “I’m not making any comments.”

Long-time District political watchers couldn’t recall any other beleaguered pol setting up such a fund. (Neither Brown, under investigation for campaign finance irregularities, nor Mayor Vince Gray, who has retained another high-profile lawyer, Robert Bennett, to deal with the federal probe of mayoral hiring practices, has a legal defense fund.) And no one seems totally sure how it would jibe with reporting requirements at the Office of Campaign Finance, which require councilmembers to report any gifts they receive over $100.

“It’s unchartered waters,” says Donald Dinan, a lawyer who has represented several councilmembers before OCF. “The D.C. code and the regulations do not specifically address it.”

Dinan says he thinks such contributions ought to be reported to OCF, but acknowledges there are plenty of lawyers who could make a strong argument otherwise. (Which is, after all, why you hire lawyers.)

“The only reason that anyone would give money to such a fund is because they’re trying to curry favor with the guy...and that’s why it should be reported,” Dinan says.

The closest parallel to Thomas’ legal defense fund LL could find was a 2003 shindig with 50 or so D.C. powerbrokers that raised money for Barry, who was broke at the time. The event was held a year before Barry kicked off his campaign for Ward 8’s D.C. Council seat, and the money was put in a fund and managed by trustees. Barry said then he didn’t know who gave what.

Thomas, who makes $125,583 a year as a councilmember, isn’t broke. But he’s had enough financial struggles to make people wonder where he’s going to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars (Team Thomas’ financial records make pretty clear the money’s all been spent). He’s being sued by the federal government for not paying $16,000 related to student loan expenses, and the Woodridge Place Housing Association filed a $2,563.50 lien on Thomas’ home in 2007.

Financial problems aside, the prospect of Thomas relying on unnamed donors giving untold amounts to pay off his debts isn’t making his critics happy.

“It’s disturbing, to say the least,” says D.C. GOP Executive Director Paul Craney, who says he hopes public disclosure of the legal defense fund will “provoke” the prosecutors into speedy action. “I mean, justice needs to be served, and this is not justice.”

But Nathan, the attorney general, says he doesn’t care who pays Thomas’ legal fees—or the settlement money. A provision in the settlement prohibits Thomas from participating in a charitable organization for five years, but Nathan says that has nothing to do with any legal defense fund.

If people want to donate to pay off the remaining $250,000 tab, and their donations are all legal, “then yes, of course, he could use the funds for that purpose, too.”

Thomas may be setting up the first legal defense fund Wilson Building wags can remember, but he’s hardly the first D.C. politician to venture into the world of murky accounts with few limits and less reporting. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams, who traveled abroad frequently, would have undisclosed business interests pay into a fund to cover his wife’s travel costs.

More recently, Gray and Brown refused public funding and relied on private donors to cover transition costs for their new posts. Both promised transparency about who donated and how that money was spent; both, so far, have failed to uphold that promise.

Of course, it’s one thing to donate to inaugurations, trips abroad, or even youth sports programs. But it’s another story to donate to a politician who could be a dead man walking. Only Thomas’ most loyal donors will likely be giving, and they’ll be making a bet that Thomas’s political career can survive this ordeal. Other big money players may sit back, at least until the criminal investigation is resolved.

“I don’t think it’s going to raise a lot of money,” says lobbyist David Carmen, whose firm donated $1,000 to Thomas’ Team Thomas nonprofit—the group that first got the attorney general’s office investigating—but has no plans to donate to a legal defense fund. “It replicates the impression the councilmember is already trying to dispel.”

Ah, if only good impressions paid the bills.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • NE John

    I will be petitioning all the republican teabagging congressmen to pressure the DOJ and FBI to take this guy down. They have said, in response to our cries for representation, that they all represent DC. I am going to call their bluff and demand the crook be removed from the council, tried and jailed.

    It is beyond surreal that he continues to represent my ward in the city council, and that donors to this legal slush fund will continue to get preferred treatment. As an American citizen who pays a lot of taxes, and who does not have the luxury of voting representation, I beg the republicans to come forth and cut this fukker off at the knees, NOW.

  • Drez

    My guess is the real reason Cheh was removed from Gov Ops is because Ward 3 would have demanded she do something about this- advance ethics reforms with teeth.
    She's too important to team One City to allow that.
    Bowser, on the other hand, got dealt a far tougher hand.

  • Ward 1 Voter

    A Control Board wouldn't be a bad alternative at this point. Clean up the mess, take out the trash, professionalize the city staff in every department from top to bottom, and rewrite the rulebook to mandate tough ethical standards for every District employee, especially the politicians.

    If the same old cast of characters is still on top after the April 3 primary, then that might be the best alternative.

  • Ward 1 Voter

    And by the way, up for reelection next year:

    Ward 2 - Jack Evans
    Ward 4 - Muriel Bowser
    Ward 7 - Yvette Alexander
    Ward 8 - Marion Barry
    At-Large - Michael Brown
    At-Large - Vincent Orange

    Bowser's the only one who isn't awful.

  • Truth Hurts

    No way, LL!! Gray and Brown repeatedly assured everyone they were going to fully disclose the connected players (I mean donors) and payouts to friends (I mean expenditures) involved in bankrolling their coronations. That's why we all were confident there wouldn't be any shady cronyism or influence peddling going on.

    Now you're saying they didn't keep their promises? Like when Harry "f... the kids" promised us he'd release the TThomas records but didn't?

    I thought one city was all about transparency. Along with character, integrity, etc.

    Oh well, happy one city everyone.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    how's this for a conspiracy theory.

    RVB was hired to today and given a salary of $37K, paid for by the city.

    RVB is a HUGE HTJ backer.

    RVB would never have to disclose it, but a LOT of this money could end up in the HTJ legal defense fund. which would mean that it could then be used to pay the city back.

    city money could be used to pay the city. HTJ's debts paid to the city treasury, from the city treasury.

    laundering? what do you think?

  • Southeast Ken

    Harry Thomas Jr. is an idiot and I hope his ass goes to jail. Hopefully, he will share a cell with a big muscular well hung man named Bubba.

  • Drez

    I think your idea is plausible but that you need a few more hires to establish a pattern.

  • DJ Ren

    Absolutely disgusting. Any councilmember NOT calling for HTJ's resignation at this point has their head in the sand, or worse.

  • NU78

    I hope the U.S. Attorney's Office takes a look at Harry Thomas's current banking records to make sure that the $50,000 check he wrote and delivered last week wasn't actually a pass-through of $50,000 from some unnamed donor...

  • Skipper

    Harry Thomas will NEVER quit. He can't afford to not have that $125k paycheck.

  • NE John

    I believe one way to help break the dysfunctional voting behavior of the problem wards in this city wold be to redraw the wards on the map. The people in my ward are collectively so stupid that they need something like this to happen.

  • DJ Ren

    Oh, and lest we forget: http://www.flickr.com/photos/afge/4684697885/

    *credit to Rake, whoever he/she is...

  • ToiletLawmakers

    @DJ Ren - I resent you for posting that pic! The way the picture caught Vince's mouth reminds me of how stinky his breath is. Oh no, I want to throw up my pineapples and oatmeal bar. My olfactory senses went back to that stank odor immediately after seeing that picture. Please don't do that anymore.

  • seDCdude

    Bastards got my post in FODDERATION.....fukk you LL!

  • Clayws

    So essentially, anyone who donates to his legal defense fund is really just paying off HTJ's audi? Is it okay for a public official to accept donations to buy a luxury suv?

  • Truth Hurts

    @ Clayws: Just about anything goes in one city.

    Character. Integrity. Leadership.

    On display daily -- it's a holistic, deliberative, transparent thing.

  • Frazier

    Ok, I think it is completely disgusting that there is no law against unamed donors paying this guys debts. He is a publically elected official who had committed a crime. The punishment should be his to bear, not some deep pocketed friends.

    However, I think HTJ is still in for some serious financial issues that will chase him for years. Why?

    1. I kinda agree that I don't really think he is going to get much money donated to him. The only people who would donate are business interests who have business before the city, but with HTJ "admitting" his stealing, his usefulness on the Council to any business interest is going to be nil, on top of the fact that I don't know of any business out there that would actively try to do business with someone still under federal investigation. I would be really suprised if he got more than 100-150K donated to him.

    2. His new lawyer, Abbe Lowell is a partner at his fancy shamncy law firm and probably bills upwards of 700-800 an hour. I wouldn't be surprised if HTJ is into this new lawyer for a 250-300K by the time the Feds are done with him.

    3. His current "Johnnie Cochrain" lawyer, Fred Cooke isn't cheap either. He probably bills in the range of 300-400 an hour and has been at HTJ's side for 8 months. I am sure the "donation" fund was his idea because he doubts HTJ's ability to pay him back for the work already performed. HTJ is probably into Cooke for another 100K-150K.

    All told, HTJ's legal fees will probably run half a million bucks. Add in the 300K he owes the city and we are up to ~800K.

    Sure, he will get some money donated to him, but I think HTJ is going to be in the hole for quite some time, which makes me smile :)

  • Wendy Washington

    Frazier, I agree with your post #18 and your estimate of how deeply in the hole HTJ will ultimately be. He deserves every bit of the debt he is racking up -- being arrogant as he is. I think you are being too generous, I doubt that HTJ could raise even $100K.

    Yes, this legal defense fund appears to some scheme that HTJ has cooked up with Cooke(DC's resident mob lawyer). I would not put Cooke in the same league as Cochran.

    I am puzzled as to why folks (with the wherewithal) would support Harry. At this point, it is best to wait it out and see if he lands on his feet (highly unlikely). If Harry can stay out of jail, he still won't be re-elected in 2014 and won't have the juice (or the skills) to command a job in the private sector.

    For those who think Harry can pull a Marion Barry -- let me stop you right here! Ward 5 ain't having it!

  • keisha kole

    raid his home and auction off everything
    he doesnt deserve to get off so easy he is a crook

  • DB

    Who is going to pay the bills?

    Developers with business pending before the city.

    The only way Brown will personally pay a dime is if he is fired (thus eliminating the worth of trying to buy his favor).

  • doug

    @Wendy and NE John-I'm a Ward 5 voter too and you are both so right, if this guy stays out of jail(and we all know he will), it's our responsibility to make sure he never represents us again-no matter who the alternative is. I wouldn't mind voting for someone who would sponsor legislation that would actually stop these scumbags from using the DC Treasury as their personal piggybanks. We can always dream...

  • Lexus

    HLT can't afford to resign. He's an idiot...really, he is not academically inclined. Who would hire him? He can probably make a few dollars in the open market, like $35K a year doing blue-collar work. Maybe he can be a lobbyist to the Council for an outside firm. But again, he is just not an intelligent guy.

  • What the flocka?

    Aren't we a forgiving people? Therefore, he can pull-it off, if the right church-folk get on the band wagon. I am just saying, stranger things can happen. It ain't over til the fat lady sing and at this point even Aretha is losing weight. Who's zoomin who?

  • pleasehelpus

    Ward 1 voter, don't speak to what you don't know about...ward 4 has been robbed even moreso as we have an unresponsive "so-called' member who depending on what part of the ward you live in you may or may not receive a response. She has therefore stolen every paycheck she has received. Bowser did nothing because she rode on Fenty's coat tails and she disrespect's many in the ward daily! Ward 4 wants a smart, caring and reliable member who will do for the entire ward!

  • “J”

    Hello, I have seen only what has been provided to me from many different information sources. The debt limit is supposedly in crises. There are many romors of what is behind the senses & everyone is talking about what is best for the nation with what information they have been provided or as bold as what they have been told. I have some opinions myself in the matters going through the Executive Branch of this great nation called the United States of America. I wish to address some of my own concerns with the issues that our great nation is dealing with at this point in time.
    There are so many ideas being thrown around of what is in the best interest of the government, not the people. Or, that without the government the people will suffer. That the government needs more funds to function for the people. That August 2nd is the deadline to increase the spending of the government to function. Without the increase the government will not be able to meet the needs of the country or the people. Between the lines the increase of the debt limit will give the United States more time to allocate the funds needed to meet the needs of the government & the people. Yet widely expressed the increase will fall short of the needed funds to continue the programs designed to strengthen the United States of America.
    So many ideals have been run thru the House & being presented to the Senate, as everyone knows they have been split between the Democrats & the Republicans. The feud between the two parties is a disgrace to the idea that is freedom. Capitalism has tainted the very idea of what our forefathers died for. Our current President Obama has had revolutionary ideas to make a change for this country. His promise to the people is crystal clear, he has offered ideas that would have strengthened our country as a free, strong & loving country. His bail out funds that were given to strengthen the United States of America were taken advantage of, furthering the gap of what this great nation is to be.it was a good idea. He continues to explore the best options for the people.
    Now, the recession is slipping into a depression for this nation, no one seems to know what to do. The Leaders of our nation in the executive branch have fallen short of the greatness that the people have been accustomed to that everything is going to be fine. So many states have felt the devastation of the government falling short of what everyone has become accustomed to as the perk’s of being a part of this great nation.
    The House & the Senate wheel & deal with lobbyist for the best interest of our nation but those lobbyist or corporations have abused the 2nd chance that was offered to strengthen the nation & the corporate capitalism that has crept into our nation for decades as lobbyist have left the United States of America to fall on their face & have left them in the mud as the rest of the nation is left to dispute what to do next to provide the services that we are entitled to as Americans as the people. A group of people have crept into this nation & stripped what it was founded on.
    Now the people who chose to stand up for the nation have sold out, they toil in the media, the government officials that are supposed to be working for the people. They say they need to spend more money to help us, yet these officials are talking about what federal & government programs are important to the people without asking for a vote from the people to decide what is best for our nation. There have been too many laws made that don’t represent the people. Why has there not been a declaration of an independent vote to bring to the Governor, the Mayor, the House & Senate, the Treasurer, the Secretary of State & Security, the Vice President, the President himself, the representation of those who are sitting in power of position, the news & media deciding our fate as the American people of this nation. The Tea Parties & GOP have expressed this idea & we sit in our homes as Americans & try to make our way thru this life, our cherished lives & speak our minds to each other that fall on deaf ears on the people in power here in the great nation of the United States of America.
    Each state of the United States of America has cut programs as each state has felt the damage of the recession. As Arizona has a 2 year waiting period to get the Medicare & Medicaid that you have paid for as long as you have worked, you may never see it & it just becomes money the government counts on, (your death) that social security may have a new age limit of 67. Florida, California, Washington & just about every state has felt some loss. No unemployment benefits’ for cash, food, living, all shutdown, no more educational programs like grants & loans for our children’s future & the list goes on. We are all losing everything that seemed like an endless surplus. Why don’t they call the Social Security government Pedy fund 1 & Medicare & Medicare Pedy fund 2? Most of the cuts aren’t even in the media & if a deal is made it will ripple like bomb shockwave as the benefits we are all used to will be gone.
    At this time there are so many ideas of what to cut to help the debt nation from political officials, not the people, the few & many who know are expressing their opinions. The nation & population has become so big that neighbors don’t talk like they.., we used to.., very few neighborhoods have a neighborhood watch; People just don’t look out for each other the way we used to with so many media dangers & privacy issues of political correctness. Who knows this stuff. I don’t even know everything that is going on & not all of the activities of the government politicians are even provided to us as the people of the United States of America & that is a travesty. I can only hope that we expand our horizons & if you know someone who speaks of ideas to make a difference in your neighborhood or the nation to seek out the avenues to be heard. For the better of the nation we need to group together.
    The government has been spending so much money that they didn’t realize their cigars were rolled with thousand dollar bills & they have been wiping their butt’s with hundred dollar bills. Now we have a choice, let the politicians spend more of our money, you, me, even the officials & raise the debt limit & deal with more talks of getting taxed more to pay off the ten thousand dollar toilets that we have no accounting access to or access to their books unless a man of the people stands up for the people to explain how a toilet that we may have in our home costs ten thousand United States of American dollars. Or we can cut them off & live without the benefits’ (the problem is that we all are talking about it but who is going to make that decision, not you, again we have no voice & the people who are screaming out fall on deaf ears) we are going to continue to pay & not get what we deserve, we will continue to pay for Social Security, Medicare & Medicare & may never see it paid to us the people.
    At this point if we let the deficit increase stop we will default, this reminds me of our great President Obama who helped create the bailout funds that is part of the reason the United States of America is in debt besides many other things that still affect the budget from previous administration. One great thing that came out of the bailout fund is that it was a lesson learned & taken advantage of, the idea was great, but the supposed pillars of society & strengthening force of our great nation fell short & sold out to their bottom dollar of what it could have been, to be blunt, it didn’t work. The worst thing at this point would be to raise the debt limit just like the bailout. As everyone would agree there are so many corrupt politicians just like the corporations that took the bailout it would just gap the rich to poor even further. No Americans voice would be heard.
    Without the increase there would be an even greater gap between the rich & poor,,, let’s not joke, the middle class has been locked down or shut out. We have the idea of what American life is, we have all been accustomed to the luxurious life that we have been living. So there is the idea, we can continue to let others like the politicians make decisions for us & raise the debt limit. Or,,, we can stand in the WhiteHouse & be heard if someone would stand up beyond the formalities for “The People”.

  • http://www.debtmanagementplan.us Toby McGuire

    I have tried debt management services, and unfortunately these services are very helpful, some people don't understand but they do have to try.