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Opinion: Ethics Cloud Over D.C. as Harry Thomas Jr. Sentencing Approaches

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Opinion: The Gavel Bangs Down

Harry Thomas Jr.

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Harry Thomas Jr. Sentencing This Week

Harry Thomas Jr. will find out in just a few days how much time he will spend in prison for stealing more than $300,000 in D.C. government grant money. Tom Sherwood has the latest.
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Barring a last-minute change, former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. on Thursday will likely get a prison sentence for his corrupt embezzlement of $350,000 in city youth funds.

As the week began, prosecutors were asking federal Judge John D. Bates to give Thomas the full 46 months imprisonment allowed by law, plus three years of probation.

“Thomas breached the public trust by stealing money from the very people he was elected to serve,” scolded U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen. “Even worse, as Thomas secretly stole money earmarked for youth-enrichment programs, he publicly portrayed himself as a champion of underprivileged children.”

Machen has been restricted from discussing specifics of the Thomas case in public, but he has minced no words in denouncing public corruption. He likely will have something to say after Thomas’ appearance in court on Thursday.

Thomas, who pleaded guilty to two felonies and resigned from the council in January, wrote his own letter to the judge this past weekend. In it, he began somewhat awkwardly by declaring, “I have tried to dedicate my life to serving others and, in particular, to helping youth … .”

Well, of course, that is demonstrably untrue.

That self-serving opening sentence probably was met with a cold stare by the judge. Thomas obviously has not dedicated his life to any such thing. He has dedicated it to petty and major theft, self-dealing and a wonton disregard for the young people he talked about so glowingly as he picked their pockets.

In his letter, Thomas went on to say that he was “truly sorry” and that his conduct was “inexcusable.” “I apologize,” he wrote. He said he would accept “full responsibility” and any punishment that comes his way “to earn the forgiveness I hope one day to receive.”

Most political and court insiders think that “one day” may come at least three years from now, if not close to four.

• Lesson learned?

The greed and graft Thomas displayed are extraordinary. He is the only sitting council member ever to resign and face prison. The taint of wrongdoing -- or at least the suspicion of wrongdoing -- hangs over the entire council.

Last Friday on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Politics Hour, we asked Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells whether the Thomas affair had registered on the council -- whether the members had gotten the message.

“Was it a wake-up call to the council members?” we asked.

“As you know, I don’t think the council has fully understood, and understands even today, that there is a crisis of ethics,” Wells quickly responded. “And that I think there is a pay-to-play perception of the council.”

Still?

“No question … I think we do have a problem with the public having confidence in the honesty and the council serving them. I think there’s a big problem,” Wells said.

And what about the still-lingering federal investigations into separate campaign allegations against Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown?

“This is a very difficult time for our city,” he said. “I do think this is an awful cloud over our government.”

Wells is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate if either Gray or Brown goes down. “We’re a great city,” he said Friday. “We’re a diverse city, and we’ve got to get through this.”

• Bar money?

It doesn’t look good for proposals to extend bar hours in the District and to allow liquor stores to open on Sunday.

“Who needs a drink that bad?” asked Council Chairman Kwame Brown (as quoted in a Tweet by WAMU’s Patrick Madden).

Ward 1 Council member Jim Graham chairs the committee with oversight for alcohol issues. He bluntly said on Monday that he would not support Sunday sales, saying they’d only exacerbate neighborhood problems. He also opposes the mayor’s proposal to raise about $3 million by extending the time bars may stay open by one hour per night. That would mean a 4 a.m. close on weekends.

Graham said he might fill the $3 million hole in Gray’s budget by increasing taxes on alcohol sales. The issue would come up for a vote later this month when the council takes on the full 2013 budget.

• Thank you.

Thank you. We appreciate all the well-wishers after our knee surgery in April. We’re healing just fine and we’re now back to work. We want to end by saying that Sibley Memorial Hospital was terrific for our in-and-out surgery. Thanks to all involved, from well-wishers at the front door to the entire medical staff.

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