Ex-DC Councilmember Pleads Guilty To Theft

Published January 6, 2012 10:54PM (EST)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former D.C. councilmember pleaded guilty Friday to embezzling more than $350,000 in government funds earmarked for youth sports and arts programs and admitted that he spent the money on a luxury SUV, travel to exclusive golf courses and clothing.

Harry Thomas Jr., resigned his council seat Thursday night — a condition of his plea agreement — just hours after being charged with theft from programs receiving federal funds and filing a false tax return.

The plea resolves one of several pending investigations into D.C. government, including a federal probe of the campaign of first-term Mayor Vincent Gray.

Thomas, who for months had maintained his innocence, did not directly address the accusations in federal court but replied, "Guilty as charged, your honor" when asked how he wished to plead. He later read a statement outside the courthouse apologizing to his family and his constituents.

The tax return charge accuses Thomas of failing to report $356,000 in income between 2007 and 2009. He was also ordered to forfeit an SUV and a motorcycle that were seized last month by federal agents who raided his northeast Washington home.

U.S. District Court Judge John Bates set sentencing for May 3. Sentencing guidelines call for a prison sentence of between three and four years.

Thomas, a 51-year-old Democrat and the son of a longtime D.C. councilmember, was elected to the 13-person council in 2006 to represent a majority-black, mixed-income section of the District of Columbia. He was re-elected in 2010. Prosecutors say the crimes began within months of his arrival in office, when he began stealing grants earmarked for youth sports and arts programs and showering himself with personal luxuries.

"He determined that he was more (worthy) of those public funds than the youth who were intended to receive them," said Lanny Breuer, an assistant U.S. attorney general.

The theft represents an "offensive abuse of the public trust," said U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, who said the investigation was continuing.

"As a city and as a community, I hope that today's proceedings move us one step together to putting this dark chapter in D.C. politics behind us," he said.

The embezzlement allegations came to light last summer in a lawsuit against Thomas from the district's attorney general. He agreed to pay back $300,000 in a settlement with the attorney general's lawsuit, although he missed a $50,000 payment due Tuesday.

Authorities have alleged that Thomas steered grant funds into a nonprofit that provides golf programs for youth. That group then paid most of the grant money to an organization under Thomas' control, known as Team Thomas. Team Thomas was supposed to use the funds for youth sports programs. But instead, Thomas spent the money on himself, buying a luxury SUV and traveling to exclusive golf courses including Pebble Beach Golf Links in California.

A statement of facts filed by prosecutors describes how Thomas and a staff misled an unnamed public-private partnership that was administering grant funds for youth baseball programs on behalf of the district.

Quarterly reports in 2008 that prosecutors say were prepared and submitted at Thomas' direction said grant funds had been used to conduct a Saturday baseball academy and a sports camp for children, and that money was used on equipment, instructors, coaches, cart rentals and other similar expenses. In reality, prosecutors say, little if any of those funds went toward the stated purpose.

Those grants were administered by the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation. Millicent West, who ran the organization during part of Thomas' scheme, told The Associated Press on Friday that she felt duped. She said she had spoken with the FBI but was not implicated in any wrongdoing and had no knowledge that the funds were being diverted.

"I would not have assumed that someone was going to use dollars in a way that was inconsistent with what was legislated and what they had committed to doing," said West, who now directs D.C.'s homeland security and emergency management agency.

Thomas also admitted a grant to help fund the debts of a 2009 inaugural ball that he had helped organize and for which he advanced funds.

Thomas was charged after days of plea negotiations between prosecutors and his defense lawyers. Mayor Vincent Gray and several council colleagues called for his resignation throughout the day and, on Thursday night, he issued a statement saying he was stepping down. He apologized to his constituents and family for "very serious mistakes."

"As a Councilmember and throughout my life, I have dedicated myself to serving the residents and the youth of Washington, D.C. In the pursuit of this work, I made some poor decisions and acted in ways I simply should not have," the statement said.

Other district officials are facing federal scrutiny. Gray's campaign staffers have been accused of giving cash and promising a government job to a minor mayoral candidate in exchange for that person's withering criticism of then-Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2010.

Council Chairman Kwame Brown is being investigated in relation to his steering more than $200,000 in campaign funds to a firm controlled by his brother in 2008.

By Salon Staff

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