An Office of Campaign Finance investigation into then-D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. had the potential to blow open the scheme in which he stole more than $350,000 from the city, some city watchdogs now say, but instead it took two more years and a federal investigation to unearth the plot.
A report cleared the Ward 5 legislator in 2009 of any illicit dealings with a local developer based on Thomas' word that no such quid pro quo existed. It said the councilman "absolutely, unequivocally" denied that a nonprofit business council he established received a payment from developer EYA.
But as federal prosecutors have revealed, by 2009 Thomas was already secretly funneling city grant money through a different local nonprofit and into his wallet.
Abigail Padou, the Ward 5 resident who originally filed the complaint with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, said the agency's investigation could have revealed a pattern of behavior.
"They refused to investigate the developer's written promise to pay Thomas' nonprofit $55,000 in exchange for Thomas' support," she told The Washington Examiner last week. "OCF's unwillingness to take its job seriously is a large part of the reason that corruption thrives in D.C."
Indeed, the allegations regarding Thomas and the nonprofit Ward 5 Business Council parallel later allegations that turned out to be true. In January, Thomas pleaded guilty to directing city grant money to Langston 21, which then turned most of it over to Thomas, who spent it on trips, cars and other personal items.
The fact that Thomas was stealing from the city while simultaneously being cleared in an OCF investigation calls into question the effectiveness of those investigations, said political consultant Chuck Thies.
"The Office of Campaign Finance has never unearthed anything that could possibly stymie criminal behavior," he said, adding later: "I don't know a politician or campaign treasurer who has lost a minute of sleep when the OCF is investigating them."
The office's investigation of Thomas didn't note that the city zoning agreement stipulated EYA would donate $55,000 to the Business Council as part of its community contributions and didn't have to do so until the first home sold. At the time of the complaint, the development was still being built and no payment had been made.
The Business Council was established by Thomas, who appointed its members -- including making his staff member Vicky Leonard Chambers its treasurer. Thomas told the OCF investigators that his role in the organization was minimal. However, the Business Council disbanded soon after the OCF ruling.
The report admonished Thomas for allowing Chambers to serve the dual role but cleared the councilman because the payment was never made.
OCF spokesman Wesley Williams on Friday stood by the office's investigation and noted the Board of Election & Ethics and Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.