The Other Shoes Keep Dropping
Former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is due in court next Thursday to learn exactly how many years he’ll be spending in prison (if any) for stealing more than $350,000 of taxpayer money.
The sentencing will provide a symbolic bookend for Thomas’ political career. But don’t expect much closure: The aftereffects of his misdeeds will continue to be felt for some time, as District and law enforcement officials sort out who else should be held accountable.
Court records filed when Thomas pleaded guilty in January provide a broad outline of his not-very complicated scheme: He directed city funds to the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corp., then pushed the trust to pass them to two nonprofits and one individual, which each gave him kickbacks on the grants. What the court records don’t have are details that might explain whether the people who helped Thomas move that money around had any idea he was stealing, or at least should have known.
At the District level, figuring that out is mostly up to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose human services committee oversees the trust. Graham has access to reams of CYITC documents and will be issuing a report any day now.
Board members at the CYITC apparently couldn’t wait: They abruptly fired CEO Ellen London a few weeks ago. The board hasn’t given much of an explanation for London’s firing, and none of the board members showed up to Graham’s hearing on Monday to answer questions, much to Graham’s chagrin.
London, who headed CYITC’s government relations during Thomas’ stealing spree and became CEO in 2009, has declined to comment on her dealings with Thomas, citing the still-ongoing federal investigation. (LL couldn’t reach her for comment on this story.) But her supporters say she’s been unfairly made a scapegoat. Mayor Vince Gray’s deputy mayor for health and human services, B.B. Otero, criticized the firing, telling the Washington Post that it was an “unfortunate decision.”
“I believe that Ellen was doing a very good job,” Otero says.
But some of London’s emails, obtained by LL through a Freedom of Information Act request, cast serious doubt on that assessment. In fact, the documents indicate London’s firing was probably long overdue. The emails suggest London practically took orders from a Thomas aide when it came to spending the CYITC’s money, and that the group also bent the rules on a 2007 grant, part of which wound up being paid to Thomas. The emails also suggest that London may have had an inkling that something was amiss with that grant.
In July 2007, a Department of Parks and Recreation official told London there was confusion in her department over whether a particular grant intended for a Thomas-backed entity (with a stopover at the CYITC first) was for $45,000 or $70,000. London wrote a two-line email to Thomas aide Neil Rodgers:
“Please call me, this ongoing confusion is killing me. I’m going to be in very hot water.”
It’s not clear from the emails with whom London was worried about being in hot water. But as it turns out, the difference in those two amounts, $25,000, is exactly the amount Thomas received in a kickback from a CYITC grant that was issued a day after London wrote that email. Unfortunately, citing the ongoing federal investigation, the D.C. Council’s attorney blacked out large sections of London’s emails to Rodgers, so LL couldn’t tell who received that grant.
The emails also show that the CYITC bent its own rules in awarding that grant, which was supposedly for a summer youth program. London wrote to Rodgers that normally the CYITC requires a budget and a program description for grants, but was making an exception in this case “as the summer programs are well underway.”
“We will grant our 90% upon signing the grant agreement, and 10% upon completion of a simple final report (services provided, numbers served, highlights etc.),” London wrote to Rodgers, two days before the first check was issued. “This is the only reporting we will require.”
Of course, that “simple final report” may have provided a chance to hide the fact that $25,000 was diverted to Thomas.
When Thomas secured a $400,000 earmark in the city’s budget for “youth baseball,” London turned to Rodgers for help on how to allocate that earmark. “Maybe you can provide some insight,” she wrote.
“Councilmember has a clear direction for the funding,” Rodgers replied. “He will speak to you this week in reference thereof.”
Rodgers wasn’t kidding about Thomas’ “clear direction.”
That $400,000 in youth baseball funding went to Langston 21, a group run by Marshall Banks and Jimmy Garvin, who pleaded guilty in February to concealing and failing to report Thomas’ theft. More than $300,000 of that money was quickly transferred into Thomas’ bank accounts, where he used it to buy a luxury SUV, among other things. The emails between Rodgers and London show that she was instrumental in making sure the CYITC paid Langston 21 the full amount.
At a hearing in February, Graham read aloud emails that showed the CYITC’s former vice president of finance was concerned with Langston 21’s paperwork, and that the trust was becoming a “check-on-demand place.” Those concerns were apparently ignored. It’s also worth noting that at that same hearing, London testified that she’d never felt any direct “political pressure” from any elected officials on matters of how to spend the CYITC’s money.
Rodgers’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment. Like London, Rodgers also lost his job for his involvement with Thomas. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown fired him from a job in his office the day Thomas pleaded guilty.
The third person to lose a job over the Thomas theft is Millicent West, who ran the CYITC while Thomas was doing most of his stealing. Court records show West helped steer more than $100,000 of CYITC money to an inaugural celebration Thomas organized at the Wilson Building. After Thomas’ guilty plea, West said she was duped by Thomas. But that wasn’t enough for Gray, who forced West’s resignation as head of the city’s homeland security agency not long afterwards.
It’s important to note that London, Rodgers, and West have not been charged with any wrongdoing. So far, only two people besides Thomas have been charged in connection to the case: Banks and Garvin.
In a press release announcing the pair’s guilty plea, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen echoed the statements he made the day Thomas pleaded.
“While Harry Thomas lined his pockets with money meant to benefit children, he was unable to do so alone,” Machen said. Banks’ and Garvin’s plea “underscores the importance of standing up and speaking out against public officials who are on the take.”
Court records show Thomas received kickbacks from two other individuals besides Banks and Garvin. Neither of those individuals, one of whom LL has previously identified as former city worker Danita Doleman, have been charged. But based on Machen’s tough talk, LL wonders if it’s just a matter of time. The bigger question is: who else is going to join them?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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