WASHINGTON (AP) — A D.C. councilmember charged with stealing more than $350,000 in government funds and filing false tax returns announced his resignation Thursday and plans to plead guilty, bringing an end to one of several recent scandals that have plagued District of Columbia government.
Harry Thomas Jr., a 51-year-old Democrat, was charged earlier in the day in a criminal information following plea discussions between his attorneys and federal prosecutors. That document typically indicates a defendant’s intention to plead guilty, and a plea hearing was scheduled for Friday morning in federal court in Washington.
After facing calls for his resignation throughout the day from Mayor Vincent Gray and from several colleagues, Thomas issued a statement through his lawyer Thursday night saying he would step down, effectively immediately. He apologized for what he called “very serious mistakes” and “inadequate and flawed judgment.”
“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,” Thomas said in the statement. “I was wrong.”
Within the past two weeks, Thomas has encouraged his remaining staff to search for new jobs, according to multiple council employees with knowledge of his actions who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose that information.
The money Thomas will admit to stealing had been earmarked for youth sports programs, according to a lawsuit filed last June by the district’s attorney general. The criminal information does not detail what Thomas did with the alleged stolen funds.
Thomas was previously accused of spending the stolen money on a luxury SUV, travel and rounds of golf. He agreed to pay back $300,000 in a civil settlement with the attorney general, although he missed a scheduled $50,000 payment that was due Tuesday.
The tax return charge accuses Thomas of failing to report $356,000 in income between 2007 and 2009.
Thomas was also ordered to forfeit an SUV and a motorcycle that were seized last month by federal agents who raided his northeast Washington home.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
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. Brown, who had earlier said he expected Thomas to resign, said late Thursday that he was saddened and disappointed.
“It is a somber day for District residents and I believe that we will prevail as we have before through tumultuous times,” the council chairman said in a statement.
Councilmember Mary Cheh, who called on Thomas to resign last summer, told The Associated Press that she was shocked by the brazenness of his actions.
“This is a direct diversion of funds. To use the word that makes it obvious to the public, this is stealing public money,” Cheh said. “I don’t think what we’re talking about with the other investigations is really that stark a breach of the public trust.”
Three other councilmembers had asked Thomas to step down. Under district law, officeholders convicted of a felony can continue serving until they go to prison.
Thomas’ late father was a longtime D.C. councilmember. The younger Thomas was elected in 2006 to represent Ward 5, a majority-black, mixed-income section of the district that includes parts of its northeast and northwest quadrants. He was re-elected in 2010.
According to the district attorney general’s lawsuit, Thomas steered the money 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, the lawsuit said.
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, the lawsuit said.
Tim Day, the former Republican candidate for Thomas’ seat who first alerted district authorities to irregularities with Team Thomas, said resignation would help “cure our city of this ethical cancer.”
“I hope this brings some closure so Ward 5 can have the positive attention and representation it deserves,” Day said in a statement.
Thomas’s resignation is expected to trigger a special election to choose his replacement within about four months, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to district taxpayers.
Despite the allegations, Thomas still enjoys some support in his ward. Robert King, a neighborhood commissioner who chaired Thomas’ 2006 campaign, said he was struggling to come to grips with the idea that his friend might have stolen money.
“I’m having a hard time trying to believe that he would take any money from the children,” King said Wednesday as reports were surfacing about an imminent plea deal. “He’s been more involved in athletics and baseball than he’s been involved in politics. That is his first love.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)