Nonprofit Management, D.C. Style
Earlier this week, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham grilled officials from a city-funded nonprofit over how they let disgraced former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. steal more than $350,000 that was supposed to help the District’s youth.
“How could this have happened?” Graham asked at an oversight hearing on the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, the nonprofit Thomas used to do his stealing. “There were lots of flags.”
Any attention given to Thomas’ theft and how to prevent another episode of a thievin’ councilmember fleecing taxpayers is certainly a worthy endeavor. But the highly publicized smack-down of the CYITC stands in stark contrast to how the D.C. Council has dealt with a similar case involving the alleged theft of city funds earmarked to help kids.
That would be the instance of Keely Thompson, who ran boxing gyms for at-risk youth before the FBI arrested him on a charge that he’d stolen more than $500,000 in public funds since 2004 and used that money to gamble in Atlantic City and take Caribbean cruises. Like the Thomas fiasco, Thompson’s story involves allegations that someone stole money designed to help kids, warning signs that may have been ignored, a lax nonprofit grantmaker, and an influential councilmember. That councilmember? The very one who held the hearing this week, Ward 1’s Graham.
But unlike Thomas’ indiscretions, the story of Keely Thompson has gotten almost zero attention from city officials or the media. That’s a shame. Its details suggest the Thomas case isn’t an isolated incident, but an example of the bad things that can happen when you mix politics and public grantmaking.
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On Jan. 8, 2009, Thompson sent Grahaman email looking for help. Graham had helped Thompson secure a lease with the city to use the gymnasium at the old Meyer Elementary School, and Thompson wanted to set up a meeting to talk about getting more money.
In a follow-up email, Thompson wrote to Graham that he was hoping to get a $125,000 grant from the Office of Latino Affairs and the Columbia Heights Shaw Family Support Collaborative, a youth-oriented nonprofit that, like the CYITC, gives out grants to other nonprofits.
“We have not received any grants from OLA/Shaw Collab,” Thompson wrote to Graham, in an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request. “Please do wht you can.” (That’s how he spelled it in the email.)
Turns out that Thompson was able to get a small grant from the collaborative in tax year 2009, according to the collaborative’s tax records. Whether Graham helped get him that money is unclear.
Graham’s certainly told the collaborative where to spend money before. He has directed several earmarks totaling millions in the last decade to the collaborative to establish and run Graham’s beloved “Green Teams” which employ the downtrodden to clean up garbage and graffiti in Ward 1, according to several published reports.
Council records show that Graham secured a $1 million earmark for the collaborative in fiscal 2009, the last year the council used earmarks. Much like Thomas and other councilmembers used the CYITC to direct grants to favorite organizations, Graham specified how $770,000 of the $1 million earmark would be spent: $170,000 to two specific organizations and $600,000 for “gang prevention.”
But B.B. Otero, who was chairwoman of the collaborative board prior to joining the Gray administration as deputy mayor for health and human services, says that to her recollection, Graham never talked to the group’s board about how it doled out its grants.
Graham, though, wasn’t interested in helping LL figure any of this out. Graham initially answered some of LL’s questions for this story, but when LL started asking about his connections to the collaborative, Graham stopped answering and began disparaging LL’s reporting.
Still, in fairness, LL notes: Graham has never been accused of pocketing city money like Thomas. But the similarities in their potential influence over funding for supposedly independent nonprofits is certainly interesting—especially since Graham has taken it upon himself to try and rehabilitate the CYITC.
Max Skolnik, a Ward 4 council candidate who runs the nonprofit Kid Power Inc. and is a member of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, says it’s an open secret in the nonprofit community that all councilmembers use their political influence to direct nonprofit funding. Some, like Graham and Thomas, have a reputation for doing it far more than others.
One man’s meddling is another man’s helping, and Graham—had he chosen to speak to LL—likely would have said there’s nothing wrong with helping the nonprofits in his ward get city funding. The trade-off, however, is that in the murky world of highly politicized grantmaking, there aren’t a lot of checks on how money is spent, and wrongdoing can sometimes be overlooked.
For example, at Monday’s hearing on Harry Thomas Jr. and the CYITC, Graham read aloud emails between officials at the trust suggesting they knew something was amiss but did little to stop it. Trust officials are under orders not to talk about the Thomas matter while the U.S. Attorney’s Office continues to investigate, so the big unanswered question is whether they could have done more to stop Thomas.
It’s the same question one might ask about Thompson’s alleged theft in Ward 1. According to an FBI affidavit, Thompson’s alleged scam wasn’t particularly complex. The FBI says Thompson’s bank records showed him using his organization’s official debit card while on cruises or at Bally’s casino in Atlantic City. He also wrote 27 checks to himself for more than $355,000 without identifying “a legitimate purpose,” according to the feds. LL found no indication that Thompson had bothered with the public tax records nonprofits must file each year. Thompson couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, but he has said he’s confident the charges will be dismissed. There’s been no trial date set yet.
But if the FBI’s allegations are true, one has to wonder why the entities funding Thompson for several years, which include the CYITC and the family collaborative, didn’t catch anything.
The collaborative had at least one big early warning sign. In 2006, one of Thompson’s former employees sued him, alleging that Thompson had discriminated against him for being HIV positive.
Anthony Clayton, the former employee, says in court records that he suspected Thompson was mishandling public money when Thompson bought himself a BMW instead of vans to transport kids to boxing events. Clayton says he told an executive at the collaborative about his suspicions, who told Thompson, who in turn fired Clayton.
“This is my [expletive] gym,” Thompson said, according to Clayton’s version of events. “I can run it anyway I want to.”
(LL couldn’t reach either Clayton or the former executive, Jaison Young, for comment.)
Still, if the Columbia Heights Shaw Support Family Collaborative had any concerns about how Thompson was spending its money, it didn’t do much about it. Tax records show that the collaborative continue to fund the gym well after Clayton voiced his suspicions. The collaborative even held boxing fundraisers with Thompson, with support from Graham’s office, in 2009 and 2010.
Likewise, both the CYITC and the council continued to fund Thompson. In fiscal 2009, Graham helped secure a $232,000 earmark for Thompson, according to records complied by then-Council Chairman Vince Gray’s staff. Graham disputes that accounting. “He got no earmarks from me,” he says.
Last year, Washington City Paper reported that, according to an anonymous Graham staffer, the councilmember had grown suspicious of Thompson in 2009 and sent a letter to the District attorney general asking him to look into “accounting irregularities.” Graham told LL that’s not entirely accurate, but declined to elaborate.
In any event, the emails LL turned up highlight Thompson’s attempts to get help from Graham right up until his arrest.
“Please do not forget about me (2 tickets) to the inauguration celebration,” Thompson wrote to Graham just before President Barack Obama was sworn in.
In November 2010, Graham asked the then-head of the now-defunct Office of Property Management to “correct this situation,” after Thompson complained of going without heat at Meyer Elementary. (Thompson had problems paying rent, and owed $29,000 when he was evicted in December 2010.)
Six days after Graham sent that email, Thompson was arrested by agents from the FBI and the District’s Office of Inspector General at his home in Prince George’s County. “I used the money in the wrong way,” Thompson told the FBI, according to the government’s criminal complaint. “I done it and I can’t change it.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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