Loose Lips

Who is Watching?

Who is Watching D.C. Politicians?

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

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

Comments

  1. The Last Supper
    #1

    They better feed you well Harry, this will be the last time you get anything good for a minute. I hope this makes a statement that our elected officials must make better decisions

  2. Angry BDC Voter
    #2

    Nothing says "hot babe magnet" like a pair of exotic shoes. Could Harry Jr. possibly be more stupid?

  3. #3

    He kind of looks like Shreck in that photo

  4. #4

    start eating cool whip harry. It will get you accustomed to what you'll be eating for a few years

  5. #5

    OCF is a joke. And everyone knows it. And the Wilson Building is just fine with OCF being a joke b/c they don't want a robust, aggressive OCF pulling everyone's pants down and exposing all the shenanigans.

    Only way campaign finance and ethics will be enforced in this city is if Congress creates an independent entity like they did with the Zoning Commission and Chief Financial Officer (although Gandhi is a political hack of the first degree). Otherwise, it's just more of the same smoke being blown up our collective asses.

  6. #6

    I nominate LL

  7. #7

    I think this post would serve as the best example bolstering the belief that the city paper (specifically Alan) is beyond being over the top and aggressive in his reporting on certain DC politicians.

  8. #8

    Why, SEis4ME? Is anything that Alan has reported as fact incorrect?

    If so, please refute.

  9. #9

    Tim Day (Gingrich delegate) didn't find anything. Nickles got on this case in response to Thomas uncovering the procurement irregularities with Fenty's fraternity brothers... $350K is chump change compared to the millions taken there...

  10. #10

    Why, SEis4ME? Is anything that Alan has reported as fact incorrect?

    Did you see me accusing Alan of false reporting? So why ask the question?

  11. #11

    Yay Tim Day

  12. #12

    @SEis4ME -- The guy is in court at this very moment being sentenced, you can hardly argue HTJ isn't news. And his point is that the institutions that are supposed to look for wrongdoing by ALL D.C. politicians are generally failing to do that.

  13. #13

    SEis4ME, if reporting facts is somehow "over the top" and "aggressive", I simply don't know what to tell you. Maybe hide out until this one city mess is over - I have a feeling reading the news will continue to be difficult for you - literally and figuratively, of course.

  14. #14

    Over the top? Aggressive?? Graham... Catania... Evans... more than enough to work with, but nothing from LL.

  15. #15
  16. #16

    @MM, nice try but apparently you can't read either...which is a shame.

    HTJ being "in the news" isn't the issue. It's the amount of time you devote to "who" is in the news. I get that you gotta fill space. But this drip drip of regurgitated blognettes is overkill.

    So before you get defensive arguing in favor of this leaky faucet approach to journalism, you need to at a minimum, understand the argument being made against this type of reporting. You don't get to determine how people respond to your reporting.

  17. #17

    SEis4ME -- Again, the guy was investigated by federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty, the first time any elected member of the D.C. Council has ever admitted to stealing city funds. I don't think there's any such thing as overkill when it comes to reporting the details of the theft. I know you think there's some ulterior motivation we have for writing about him, and I understand your argument, I just think it's wrong; if a white councilmember pulls the same crap, we'll report just as extensively and "regurgidatedly" on them. The reason we're writing about HTJ is because of what he did, not what color his skin is.

    You're free to stop reading City Paper if you don't like what we do, as well as free to read and criticize it. But I'm not going to apologize for the fact that we're writing a lot about an elected official who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars that was supposed to help kids here.

  18. #18

    Good for you, Mike.
    I'm not tired of CP's reporting.
    But I am rather saddened by and more than a little mistrustful of apologists who'd rather point fingers than look in a mirror.

  19. #19

    Boom! Well said Mike and Drez.

  20. #20

    @MMaden, I don't think there's any such thing as overkill when it comes to reporting the details of the theft.

    And that's where we disagree. I do.

    if a white councilmember pulls the same crap, we'll report just as extensively and "regurgidatedly" on them. The reason we're writing about HTJ is because of what he did, not what color his skin is.

    A hit dog apparently will bark. When have you seen me mention "race" as an issue?

    You're free to stop reading City Paper if you don't like what we do, as well as free to read and criticize it.

    Really? Thanks for the obvious.

    But I'm not going to apologize for the fact that we're writing a lot about an elected official who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars that was supposed to help kids here.

    Again, reading is the key here. I didn't ask you to apologize because I don't think there's anything to apologize for. It is what it is.

    @Drez, But I am rather saddened by and more than a little mistrustful of apologists who'd rather point fingers than look in a mirror.

    I fail to see posts from anyone asking for your "trust." BTW, I look in the mirror daily, and like what I see.

  21. #21

    Glad this saga is over. What next Sewer-man?

  22. #22

    @ITM, don't ask Alan what's next - ask Ron Machen!

    One City, more perp walks.

  23. #23

    Next up, Mr. Kwame Brown!

  24. #24

    If all you have to do in life is sit on the sidelines and wait for the U.S. Attorney's office to raid someone's home, file charges on someone or wait anxiously for a sentencing hearing.

    That is a tell-tell sign that you are living a pathetic existence. It really is.

    Life is too short. Live your life, while you have it, and let the U.S. Attorney do their job. Greet raids and indictments with a glancing nod. There is far too much negative energy in the District. You are either fed and become consumed by it or reject it.

    I want those to commit crimes to suffer the consequences. But I refuse to degrade the quality of my life by dancing in someone elses misery. Just saying.

  25. Cap City Records Panhandler
    #25

    @SEis4Me

    Did HTJ buy you a pair of "exotic shoes"?

  26. #26

    Did HTJ buy you a pair of "exotic shoes"?

    Nope, I purchased them myself.

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