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Eroding Public Trust in D.C. Government

The D.C. Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation (CYITC) was formed in June 1999 as an independent 501(c)(3) organization to link public and private resources committed to addressing the long-term needs of children, youth and their families in the District of Columbia. According to its original mission statement, “Its goal was to create alliances fostering strategic and effective investment in children and youth, to ensure high quality programs and services for every child in D.C. and to create mechanisms to evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts.” Unfortunately it went sadly off the tracks. The most egregious example was the money stolen by former City Council member Harry Thomas Jr.

In 2012, according to the Washington Post, “A solemn and weary Harry Thomas Jr. stood before a federal judge Thursday and blamed ‘a sense of entitlement’ for his having used his former position as a D.C. Council member to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for youth programs. U.S. District Judge John D. Bates then imposed a sentence of three years and two months in prison, the most severe criminal sanction ever given a local elected official in the District.”

Recriminations continued and in 2013 the Washington Post quoted Diane Bernstein, the Trust’s founding vice chairman saying, “We were reaching for the stars here, and we were doing it. Only when the policy people stepped in did things start to go downhill.” In 2007, Adrian Fenty (D) took office as mayor and replaced Bernstein and then-Chair John W. Hill Jr. with his own people. Bernstein said, “What was originally intended to be an independent grant-making organization evolved into a means for political appointees to funnel money to pet projects.”

Looking at the Trust over the years Bernstein was right. There was never appropriate oversight and the board didn’t take responsibility for what was happening. As a non-profit CEO for more than 35 years I can only see the problems with the Trust as outrageous, inexcusable and maybe criminal. My hope is there will be an in-depth audit of all the Trust’s programs and funds with staff and the board held responsible and criminally charged if that turns out to be appropriate.

But the problems with the Trust should be a warning to all future mayors and others responsible for oversight of taxpayer funds that close monitoring of organizations entrusted to doling them out is crucial. When the city works with a non-profit to which they have a role in appointing board members they must ensure those people understand non-profits. It isn’t enough to appoint someone with a big name if that person doesn’t have the knowledge, time or willingness to be integrally involved.

There are other organizations in the District that hand out funds to various non-profits and we need to make sure they have reporting requirements in place and a board and staff that understand finances, and can read a budget and expense report.

One example of another such organization in the District is the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. It distributes District money to many small groups and it is important to look at how it operates to make sure this embarrassing disaster at the Trust isn’t repeated. The boards of these organizations should have a finance and audit committee. Their staff must understand the board is entitled to see and review all budgets, income and disbursements, and not just after the fact.

The city should take a much bigger role in helping non-profit organizations receiving taxpayer funds and insist their board and staff receive training on what their responsibilities are. Too often these boards are made up of people dedicated to a particular cause and wanting to do a good job but not having the experience to do it. It is not enough to give mayoral appointees to boards and commissions ethics training, which I understand they get, but they need training in the requirements of the job they are being asked to do.

There is a responsibility that anyone entrusted with spending public funds has and that is to do it responsibly and always be able to justify how it is used. People are generous and most taxpayers don’t resent paying their fair share as long as they know it is being used appropriately. The kind of activity that went on at the Trust, be it just inept or criminal, erodes the public trust.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.