Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 12/07/11 - NBC4 Washington

Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 12/07/11

Accusations lead to ethics legislation in D.C.



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    D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.

    A children’s choir enthusiastically sang “Here Comes Santa Claus” Monday in the main foyer of the John A. Wilson Building downtown. When they got to “He knows if you’ve been bad or good,” we couldn’t help but think that those words might also apply to the FBI and what it knows about Ward 5 D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.

    There was a dramatic raid of Thomas’ house Friday by FBI and Treasury Department agents.

    On Monday, Thomas was in his office just down the hall from all the holiday festivities. He quietly walked out a back door, avoiding reporters who had been waiting for him. They had gotten distracted by the holiday singing. Giving reporters the slip may have been the only “good” thing for Thomas.

    Later that day, the D.C. Council’s Government Operations Committee approved a sweeping ethics bill that would make it easier to discipline council members caught up in ethics violations.

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    And Thomas’s alleged violations were on everyone’s minds, especially Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser’s.

    “What I would say is, certainly if these allegations are proved true, it’s an outrageous breach of the public’s trust,” she said after the vote.

    Despite the cloud of ethics issues, the ethics bill almost got sidetracked on Monday.

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    At-large members Vincent Orange and Michael A. Brown strongly indicated that they would vote to postpone any consideration of the bill. Bowser and at-large member David Catania clearly wanted to go forward. It would have been a 2-2 tie, and the measure would have failed. (Here’s an interesting side note: The missing fifth member was Thomas.)

    But the bill was saved when Chairman Kwame Brown suddenly strolled into the room and sat with the committee. As council chairman, Brown can vote on any committee he chooses.

    He promptly dashed any hopes of the council members who wanted to delay, saying an ethics bill needs to pass the full council by the end of December and that Monday’s vote was crucial.

    At that point, at-large member Brown -- who had said there were too many new provisions he hadn’t had a chance to read -- folded and voted for the bill along with Bowser, Catania and the chairman. Orange was the lone holdout, threatening to introduce his own bill the following day. Yesterday, though, Orange spoke a lot but ended up withdrawing his proposed changes. The council gave initial approval to the Bowser bill and will vote again on it in two weeks. Other members may try again to amend the bill then.

    Though Chairman Brown saved the bill in committee, some reporters snickered at his action. He and his 2008 re-election committee are under a federal investigation involving tens of thousands of dollars improperly raised or spent. The chairman has denied any wrongdoing. Critics say that standing for strong ethics now is just a way to burnish his tainted image.

    But the fact is, whatever his motive, Brown backed the Bowser bill and provided the key vote.

    “We want to make sure we get an ethics reform bill passed out of the council,” Brown told a gaggle of reporters at a nearby elevator. “Residents have come down and expressed their interest in the bill. And now it’s time we make sure we get something done.”

    ■ Wringing their hands.

    The ethics bill was just one battle at the start of the week.

    Chairman Brown called the council members to a private meeting Monday afternoon to discuss the dire situation with Ward 5’s Thomas.

    Some members said they just want Thomas to resign.

    Others said they want him take a paid leave of absence to at least lower the heat in the Wilson Building.

    And a couple simply want the council to do nothing and let the legal process play out.

    Again, as our deadline arrived, there was word that Chairman Brown would discuss the alternatives with Thomas. Even some of Thomas’s private advisers believe it would make sense for him to take the paid leave. But there’s no certainty he will.

    When this scandal first broke earlier this year, Thomas was chair of the influential Economic Development Committee. Thomas didn’t wanted to give up his chairmanship, but Kwame Brown made it clear that he had no choice. Brown was prepared to have the council remove Thomas from the post if he hadn’t voluntarily stepped aside.

    ■ The feds are watching.

    We’ve reported several times here in the Notebook about convictions of other public service officials. We’ve done it as a way of cautioning elected officials and others that U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen is serious about corruption.

    Our latest example is one James Hadieh, also known as Jason Hacen. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Hadieh pleaded guilty last week in federal court for attempting to bribe a D.C. tax official.

    Too bad the contractor didn’t know that the tax official, once aware of the bribe attempt, reported it to authorities and cooperated to help catch him in the act. Now Hadieh faces a year or two in prison. And he still owes the taxes.

    According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hadieh was president of Quantum Services Inc., which failed to pay all of its D.C. taxes for three years. When the firm was audited, it owed about $100,000. According to federal authorities, Hadieh offered a bribe of $10,000 to the city tax official to reduce the tax bite to $60,000.

    D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi praised the tax official, saying, “This is an example of the strong professionalism of the [tax] staff and their commitment to their responsibilities as stewards of the City’s tax laws.”

    Gandhi is still stung by the famous case of the tax official who systematically stole tens of millions of dollars over many years. It’s nice for the good guys to win one now and again.