News4's Tom Sherwood reports on the guilty plea of D.C. Council Member Harry Thomas Jr.
An elected official who used taxpayers like his personal "piggy bank" is facing jail time following a plea bargain negotiated this week.
Former D.C. Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Friday to two felony counts -- embezzlement and filing false income tax returns.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr., whose office pursued the case against Thomas, called the former council member's actions "a flagrant abuse" of his position.
"The crimes that Mr. Thomas acknowledged in court today were an offensive abuse of the public trust," Machen said. "He diverted tax payer dollars that were intended for the children of the District of Columbia for his own personal gain."
"He decided he was more worthy of these public funds than the youth who were intended to receive them," said Lanny Breuer, of the Justice Department.
Machen said Thomas's wrongdoing started soon after he began his first term in 2007.
On Thursday, prosecutors charged Thomas with stealing more than $350,000 in government funds and filing false tax returns. He immediately resigned from his position as Ward 5 Council member Thursday evening as part of the plea agreement.
Thomas, appearing on the court house steps after the hearing, apologized for his actions, saying this plea was "the first step to making things right."
"To the young people that I have worked with, including their parents and caregivers, I offer my sincerest apologies," he said. "Through athletics, I tried to teach you the importance of character and integrity. My conduct set a poor example."
Prosecutors said Thomas took money meant for programs like athletics and youth counseling and spent it on himself.
“Time and time again Mr. Thomas used for his personal gain taxpayer funds that were intended to benefit the city’s most important resource: It’s children,” Machen said.
In June, D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan released a report detailing his expenditures. Nathan's report says Thomas bought a $68,00 luxury SUV with some of the money. He's also accused of using the cash for expensive trips, including at least one golf outing to Pebble Beach.
Thomas used his position to steer grant funds to non-profits that would then kick back money to Thomas, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Records and receipts were falsified.
Thomas faces 37 to 46 months in prison when he is sentenced May 3.
“Rather than face another four-year council term, he now faces prospect of serving three-to-four years in prison," Machen said.
Thomas's staff also was let go. His council seat will remain empty until a special election that will cost the city another $350,000. Officials will try to make the special election coincide with the primary on April 3, but it might not be held until May.
Thomas's father had also served in public office, and his mother was a school teacher. He apologized to both on Friday and hinted that he might have hopes of eventually returning to D.C. politics. Referring to his parents, he said, "It is this legacy of service that I hope to live up to again."
Machen said the case against Thomas is meant as a message to other D.C. elected officials.
"Elected officials are expected to do their official duties with honor and integrity," Machen said. "And when they fail to do that, there will be consequences, and they will be held accountable."
"With the cloud of ethical cancer over our current administration, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg," said Tim Day, a Republican who ran against Thomas in 2010 and first raised suspicions about the councilman. "I think that if we were to have an independent audit, a true detailed independent audit, we would find millions of dollars misappropriated."
The U.S. Attorney's office still has open investigations into the campaign spending of both Council Chairman Kwame Brown and Mayor Vincent Gray.
"I just look forward to it moving forward and having closure, and that's what I think is important," Brown said. "I think the message was very clear that I'm looking forward to closure so we can continue to move this city forward."
Brown said he is not worried about the investigation into his campaign spending.