Who is Watching?
Harry Thomas Jr. wasn’t particularly subtle in how he went about stealing more than $350,000 in D.C. taxpayer funds. So it’s tempting to assume it was just a matter of time before he was caught.
Thomas, who is almost certain to be sentenced to prison shortly after this article goes to print, left behind a mile-long paper trail of emails and bank records showing how his D.C. Council office moved money designated to serve the city’s youth into Thomas’ bank accounts.
The former Ward 5 councilmember wasn’t very discreet on how he spent those ill-gotten funds. He went golfing at some of the country’s most expensive resorts. He plunked down nearly $70,000 for an SUV and $25,000 for a motorcycle. He even spent $1,374 on three pairs of what federal prosecutors describe as “exotic shoes.”
And Thomas did all this over several years, starting just after he took office in 2007.
But Thomas’ moment of reckoning was hardly inevitable. In fact, it was almost a minor miracle he got caught, a miracle driven by politically motivated operatives and dumb luck. It’s the same formula that led to the U.S. Attorney Office’s ongoing investigations of Mayor Vince Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, two investigations that have shown signs of progressing towards eventful conclusions. (Both Gray and Brown have denied any wrongdoing.)
Dumb luck and political motivations probably play a role in most corruption investigations, but in the District they appear to be the only factors, a situation that raises questions about the city’s ability to police itself.
Consider: Thomas’ Republican opponent in the 2010 race, Tim Day, did what most politicians do—he went looking for dirt on the other guy. It didn’t take much Internet trolling to notice that Thomas was soliciting funds from city developers and contractors for a nonprofit, Team Thomas, that wasn’t registered with either the city or the IRS. Day also noticed that Thomas was using the supposed nonprofit to further his political goals.
That research led to a smattering of press coverage, which caught the eye of then-lame duck Attorney General Peter Nickles, who had free reign to pester Thomas over his unregistered group. The questions over Team Thomas’ legitimacy eventually snowballed into the investigation of Thomas’ theft. If Thomas hadn’t boasted of Team Thomas’ activities in his council literature, or if another, more politically connected attorney general been in place, Thomas could have easily escaped the feds’ notice.
Gray got ensnared in an investigation through similar happenstance. Recent reports say the feds are looking at whether Gray’s campaign benefited from an off-the-books shadow effort. The Washington Post found part of that effort was funded by an individual with ties to Jeff Thompson, a Medicaid contractor who is one of the biggest political contributors to local campaigns. Thompson’s home and office were raided by federal authorities in March. He’s not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Blame/credit for the whole investigation belongs to Sulaimon Brown, the minor mayoral candidate whose firing from a $110,000-a-year city job caused a media firestorm.
Brown launched the investigation by sharing text messages with the Post that suggested the Gray campaign had promised him a job in return for attacking former Mayor Adrian Fenty on the campaign trail. Were it not for scorned Brown, would the feds have taken a deep dive into Gray’s alleged shadow campaign?
Kwame Brown was similarly unfortunate. His opponent in the 2010 chairman’s race, Vincent Orange, asked the Office of Campaign Finance to investigate how $70,000 from Brown’s 2008 campaign mysteriously vanished. Instead of coming up with the missing money, auditors for the OCF found that Brown’s campaign paid a contractor $380,000, of which $240,000 went almost immediately to a firm owned by Brown’s brother, Che Brown. Former Board of Elections and Ethics Chairman Togo West said the BOEE believes that was “criminal activity” involved. Now a grand jury is hearing evidence in the case.
In Thomas and Brown’s case, potential red flags appeared to go ignored for years.
OCF had Brown’s finance reports for two years before launching the investigation that uncovered the money for Brown’s brother. That Brown’s brother got paid something isn’t a huge surprise; after Brown’s first victory in 2004, the Post raised questions about the way Brown’s campaign paid his father and brother through a third-party consultant. Couple that with the fact that Brown raised more than $650,000 for an uncontested race, and LL can’t help but wonder why OCF wasn’t a little bit more assertive in investigating where all that money went. (Then again, LL wonders the same thing about the press, himself included.)
“They’re not proactive, they’re reactive,” Dorothy Brizill, a citizen watchdog and outspoken critic of OCF, says of the agency.
Another strike against OCF: Last year, its auditors gave Orange’s at-large campaign a clean bill of health after reviewing several money order donations with ties to Jeff Thompson. But after intense media pressure earlier this year, Orange called for a new investigation of his own campaign, citing “questionable and suspicious” donations tied to Thompson. The sequential tracking numbers and handwriting on some of Thompson-linked money orders raise questions as to whether straw donors were used.
OCF spokesman Wesley Williams defends his agency’s performance: “We’re very diligent in the mission assigned to us.”
The Thomas case is more complicated; his ability to steal over several years speaks to a collective failure of oversight, rather than any particular agency. Recently released emails show the ease with which a Thomas staffer steered hundreds of thousands of dollars into Thomas-backed nonprofits, some of which gave Thomas kickbacks. When aides at the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, the city-funded nonprofit that Thomas used to do his stealing, raised concerns about one of the grants, those concerns were ignored by CYITC’s management.
And a recent report by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham suggests that then-D.C. Council Chairman Gray and his staff overlooked warning signs in the Thomas case. When the council voted in 2007 on the next year’s earmarks for the CYITC, each grant was to be given to a specific organization, save for one: the $400,000 earmark Thomas ordered be spent on “youth baseball.” Most of that grant wound up in Thomas’ pocket, and Graham says Gray’s staff was “surely aware of this anomaly.” A former staffer familiar with the budget says the earmark wouldn’t have raised any flags because it was assumed the CYITC would competitively bid the “youth baseball” grant, rather than just do what Thomas told it to do.
District officials would have you believe, dear readers, that all these problems have been fixed. In response to recent ethical challenges, lawmakers approved a new Board of Ethics last December, while limiting OCF’s areas of responsibility to campaign-related matters. (Previously, OCF handled conflict of interest and lobbying issues.)
But the new board has gotten off to a particularly rough start. The legislation called for the mayor to nominate board members within 45 days. That deadline has come and gone without any nominees, causing some bickering between the legislation’s main sponsor, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, and the Gray administration. Without a board, the new agency can’t start hiring.
The Gray administration has complained that it can’t find qualified candidates willing to serve on the board, but says its picks will be out soon. Bowser agreed to a 30-day extension this week.
And Bowser promises that once the board is up and running, there will be “a robust regime in place” dedicated to good government.
“We have to take care of our own affairs in the District,” she says.
Please pardon LL if he doesn’t find that too reassuring.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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