1/28/2012

By Erica Trachtman, J.D. Candidate

On Friday, January 6, after several months of denying any misconduct, D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr. pled guilty to embezzling federal funds and filing false tax returns—two felonies that, in addition to curbing Thomas’ political aspirations, will likely send him to prison for a number of years. Rather than doing his job and representing the interests of Ward 5, in which one in five residents is a child, Thomas pocketed funds specifically earmarked for youth recreation programs. Somewhat surprisingly, Thomas is the first D.C. councilmember to vacate his seat under a legal cloud, although the D.C. government is certainly no stranger to corruption and scandal. In fact, the FBI and IRS are continuing investigations into the shady conduct of other key District leaders, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown. This post examines the legal and ethical woes surrounding Thomas and other top players at the helm of the D.C. government and analyzes the impact of this less-than-effective leadership on the seemingly eternal quest for D.C. statehood.

A member of a prominent D.C. family,[1] Harry Thomas, Jr. was elected to the Council in November 2006 and took office as the representative for Ward 5 in January 2007. With 72,000 residents, Ward 5 covers nineteen neighborhoods across the Northeast corridor of the District. Suspicions regarding Thomas’ conduct initially arose during his 2010 reelection campaign. D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan subsequently launched a civil suit against Thomas in June 2011 and referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for criminal charges. At that time, Thomas claimed that he had done nothing wrong, but he eventually agreed to a settlement requiring him to repay the city $300,000. Thomas defended the settlement, claiming the decision was made “to ensure that the trust the public has placed in me is maintained and honored.”

However, after FBI agents raided his home in December 2011, the details of Thomas’ fraudulent scheme were exposed and his misconduct became undeniable. As early as April 2007, Thomas had spent more than $350,000 in taxpayer dollars (money designated for the arts, youth recreation, and summer programs) to fund his own extravagant lifestyle, including luxury vehicles and lavish golfing trips. After a long investigation by the IRS, FBI, and U.S. Attorney’s Office, Thomas pled guilty in district court to a criminal information charging him with one count of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds and one count of filing a false tax return. As part of the plea agreement, he agreed to resign from the Council. Thomas will not be sentenced until May; however, the parties have already agreed that under federal sentencing guidelines, the appropriate range would be 37 to 46 months in prison and a possible fine of $7,500 to $75,000.  The plea agreement also calls for Thomas to make restitution in the amount of $353,500 and to give up some of his prized luxury goods, including a Victory motorcycle and Chevrolet Tahoe.  In a press conference following the plea hearing, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said of Thomas, “Time and time again, he used for personal gain taxpayer dollars that were intended to benefit this city’s most important resource - its children. As a city and a community, we are now one step closer to putting this dark chapter in D.C. politics behind us.”

Sure, after years of malfeasance, Thomas is finally being held accountable for his corrupt conduct. But what about the rest of the D.C. council?  

Just weeks after being elected Chairman, Kwame Brown committed a glaring faux pas when he ordered a fully-loaded Lincoln Navigator at the District’s expense. When the SUV arrived with a gray interior, Brown demanded a replacement vehicle with black interior, forcing the city to pay the leases on both cars. A few months later, after an audit revealed that Brown failed to report hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office launched a formal investigation into Brown’s 2008 council campaign.

In early 2011, the IRS filed a lien against the home of Michael A. Brown, an at-large member of the Council. Brown had neglected to pay over $25,000 in property and income taxes, though he has since paid off both debts.  Councilmember Jack Evans spent nearly $150,000 of his constituent services fund to buy professional sports tickets. When deciding on a proposed ethics bill in December, Evans’ fellow councilmembers voted toallow Evans to continue buying season tickets. The chief of staff of Councilmember Jim Graham admitted to accepting a bribe during a D.C. taxi corruption investigation and was sentenced to eight months in prison.  And of course, there is Marion Barry. Despite being arrested on cocaine charges back in the 90s, Barry served a second mayoral term and multiple stints on the D.C. Council. Currently, he represents Ward 8, and in December, the IRS filed a lien on Barry’s home due to unpaid income taxes.

Finally, Mayor Vincent Gray faces federal scrutiny due to allegations that his 2010 mayoral campaign team gave an opponent, Sulaimon Brown, multiple cash-stuffed envelopes and money orders to keep Brown in the race and continuing to verbally attack then-incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty. In return, Brown claims that he was promised a job in Gray’s administration. Despite an eight month investigation by a House of Representatives ethics committee, no charges have been filed against Gray.  Some District residents, however, have responded to the allegations and a shared dissatisfaction over accountability in D.C. politics by instigating a “Recall Vince Gray” movement.

It is worth taking a moment to trace the brief history of self-government in D.C. District residents only began electing a Mayor and a Council in the fall of 1974, after Congress passed the Home Rule Act. Formerly, Congress’ House Committee on the District of Columbia exercised almost total control over the local affairs of D.C. The Council was to operate just like any other state or county legislature, with the power to adopt laws and approve the District’s annual budget. But despite the passage of the Home Rule Act, Congress retains the power to review all legislation passed by the Council before it can become law, the President is the sole appointer of the District’s judges, and D.C. still has no voting representation in Congress. Multiple bills and constitutional amendments giving District residents voting representation have failed to pass, and the quest for complete autonomy continues.

It appears undeniable to me that the Council’s semi-constant episodes of corruption and scandal have become tremendous blockades in the effort to mobilize state legislatures and rally the necessary support to achieve D.C. statehood. Local grassroots efforts pushing for “full American citizenship” are strong. And ever since the year 2000, even the District’s license plates lament “Taxation Without Representation.” But becoming a state entails more than a catchy slogan. Statehood requires approval by a majority vote of each House of Congress and the President's signature. Later this month, D.C. Council members will begin a series of trips to state legislatures across the county in hopes of gathering support for D.C. statehood. But with federal investigations looming, and the support and trust of District residents waning, the success of such efforts remains uncertain. At-large Councilman David Catania put it best, proclaiming: "How absurd is it for us, really, to try and make the case across the country for voting rights and statehood -- both are legitimate and well deserved -- when people across this country are treated to a routine diet of the latest shenanigans of this government?"