The Thomas Mess, now playing
If summer is the season of tentpole movies -- The Thomas Mess is turning into a spectacle fast, putting our politics into a deep, widening ethical hole. Councilmember Harry "Tommy" Thomas Jr., though accused by D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan of diverting city money from youth programs for his own personal uses including a luxury car and golf outings -- has been allowed by the AG to settle civil charges against him for $300,000, without admitting wrongdoing.
The settlement itself opens a new cauldron of trouble, allowing off-the-books political donations that don't involve public reporting requirements and are -- get this -- essentially unlimited. Although most of our top elected officials have not decried this obvious invitation to pay-to-play, it's a movie District residents have seen before.
Nathan is a strong candidate for "best supporting actor" for his role in The Thomas Mess. While the AG did bring the initial suit that brought the accusations against Thomas to light that led to Thomas losing his committee chairmanship, he settled too soon and on terms that are too lenient. We agree with The Washington Post editorial: “Because the settlement was reached on the very day he was ordered to respond to the lawsuit, Mr. Thomas was off the hook on having to answer the charges.” In addition, not only does Thomas continue to deny the allegations, there are no limits to how he can collect the money to pay the settlement. No wonder Councilmember Thomas issued an almost chest-beating statement as the settlement was announced. He said that the allegations of “a purposeful misuse of any funds are not true” and the settlement will “ensure that the trust the public has placed in me is maintained and honored.” Welcome to our political parallel universe: there is almost more D.C. government opprobrium around here for failing to pay a parking ticket on time. A few brave Councilmembers, David Catania (At-large), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and now Tommy Wells (Ward 6), have publicly questioned Thomas’ fitness to remain in office. Cheh said the settlement leaves the appearance that Thomas “inappropriately diverted public money intended for youth activities to his own benefit.” This makes it “very difficult for him to continue to effectively serve the citizens of the District, and, therefore, I hope he will seriously consider stepping off the Council.” Bowser asked Thomas to “consider strongly the position he’s putting the entire body [the D.C. Council] in and our ability to govern.” The rest of the city’s elected leadership is largely silent or ambiguous, including Council Chair Kwame Brown and Mayor Vincent Gray. The office of At-large Councilmember Michael Brown told The Georgetown Dish he has "no position." It is now time for city leaders, including the Mayor and the Council Chair, to call Thomas in and ask him to at least step aside, if not resign. The Thomas Mess is, as far as we know, much worse than ethical lapses Mayor Gray and Chairman Brown are accused of and it is their job now to lead the city out of the ethical hole we are falling into. City leaders should bring up the lights and unspool this embarrassing spectacle -- before the movie starts to hit small screens nationwide.