D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan laid out an argument in a Washington Post op-ed this past weekend as to why his settlement with Ward 5 Council member Harry "Tommy" Thomas Jr. wasn't a capitulation.
Mr. Nathan noted that he had achieved the only goal he legally could obtain: a promise from Thomas to repay the $300,000 in city money that he allegedly diverted to his personal use. (We have to say allegedly because Mr. Thomas neither admitted nor denied guilt.)
Now the ball is in the criminal court of U.S. Attorney Robert Machen. It’s up to his office to determine whether Thomas will face penalties such as jail time or forced resignation from his public office as this scandal unfolds.
But it’s not solely a federal criminal matter. The city of Washington is a victim here, too.
As a political entity, the citizens of the city are entitled -- no, obligated -- to weigh in on the Thomas affair. It’s one thing for citizens to await action by the U.S. attorney, but that doesn’t mean the city's political establishment can’t act or that the judicial process has to play out before the political system acts.
Thomas, by agreeing to pay back $300,000, is acknowledging that he did something wrong, legal niceties aside. Yet he will continue to serve as a council member, earn his $125,000-a-year salary and vote on the issues that come before the D.C. Council. We all must await the criminal process, adhering to the legal "innocent until proven guilty," but again that is not an excuse for inaction by Thomas's fellow council members.
First and foremost, some believe the council should consider and vote on emergency legislation that would require Thomas to disclose any contributors to his new legal defense fund. The fund is being set up to help him cover his legal bills and fulfill his promise to repay the city $50,000 every six months for three years. Who will give to this secret fund, and what will those individuals or interests want in return?
On WPFW’s “DC Politics” radio show last week, Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells said he is one of several council members working on a new ethics law to curb abuses. But in response to a question your Notebook emailed to host Chuck Thies, Wells shied away from the idea of emergency legislation to put tougher standards into effect quickly. Wells told the radio audience that a roiling controversy like the Thomas situation is not the time for quick action, but rather an opportunity to step back and thoughtfully consider legislative changes.
Well, we're all for thoughtful changes, but we also believe that if your house is on fire, you don't form a committee to discuss fire department policies; you get out the biggest fire hose you can find.
It's all well and good that several council members agree that a tough, new ethics standard must be written for the council. But that doesn't mean those same council members can't take emergency action in September to cure or limit abuses immediately.
A simple emergency law could require that any defense fund publicly report the source and amount of funds raised. It could apply to any fund that directly or indirectly benefits an elected or senior official of the District government.
Council member Thomas, who is clinging to his public job despite calls for his resignation, is not a man of wealth. What will he do in return for the money to pay his obligations?
And who will contribute to Thomas' defense fund when even the city's attorney general says bluntly that Thomas's worst legal problems lie ahead?
In his Post op-ed, Nathan made it clear that the U.S. attorney likely will find criminal wrongdoing by Thomas. In defending his decision to allow Thomas to neither admit nor deny wrongdoing, Nathan wrote, "A thoughtful observer can deduce the significance of a settlement without the need for express confessions." He wrote that a settlement, so quickly reached, speaks for itself: " ... A reasonable outside observer can fairly draw the conclusion that the defendant has recognized that a publicized trial would not inure to his benefit."
That's a lawyer-speak way of saying that Thomas knew he couldn't win and instead will focus on combating any criminal charges that may be brought against him. Nathan said there "is a specter of a criminal prosecution" hanging over Thomas.
Council member Wells, at-large member David Catania, Ward 3 member Mary Cheh, Ward 4 member Muriel Bowser, Ward 7 member Yvette Alexander and even Chairman Kwame Brown have all taken varying rhetorical positions criticizing Thomas and his diversion of city money. But will they take immediate action to stem the wrongdoing, to clarify who is paying for what while this ethical mess is cleaned up? Will there be a clear and quick toughening of the city's ethics law, or will there be a drawn-out legislative process, dragging on for months?
Again, without getting into whether Thomas is criminally responsible for his public-funds mess, the council members could reassign his staff on the council, bar him from serving on any committee and set up a special committee to act as the Ward 5 representative for constituent services. Thomas has never explained where the $300,000 went or why it's not properly accounted for in his records. Let him defend himself, but let the city get on with its business.
• Ward 3 takes a swing.
The Ward 3 Democratic Committee has set up a task force to recommend “best practice” ethics reforms. The task force says it will share its research with citizens. And it is asking for your help. Send your advice, suggested experts or any other info you think it should have to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The weekend brought news that Suzanne Peck, who is undertaking a thorough review of city government operations, is asking officials to sign nondisclosure statements to prohibit public disclosure of her reform efforts. The fact that the nondisclosure documents were made public should tell you something about the effectiveness of such efforts.