The D.C. Council, and almost all Washingtonians wanted answers concerning an organization that former council member Harry Thomas Jr. used as a pipeline to steal from the District of Columbia. Thomas’ actions gives many familiar with the case cause for concern with fast-tracked grants.
Ward 1 council member Jim Graham was filled with questions when employees of the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. testified before the Committee on Human Services, which he chairs. He and many others were not clear on how Thomas was able to steal slightly over $355,000 in earmarked funds that passed through the organization.
Graham said, “Something happened here, and we’re going to pursue what that is.”
On Monday afternoon Graham shot questions to CYITC President and CEO Ellen London, about warning signs in 2007-09 under her predecessors, potential political pressures that led to faulty oversight of grants funds, and the reforms designed to prevent any more problems. London took office in November 2009, although she has been employed by the trust since 2000, and her immediate predecessor, Millicent West, recently stepped down as director of the city’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to avoid the “distraction” caused by events during her tenure at the trust.
CYITC has an annual budget on over $3 million.
“Seems to me that the committee should have requested that that lady Millicent be here to answer a few questions,” said one of the Washingtonians who listened in the audience.
Although many thought London may not have been involved in illegal activity, emails did show that she was part of an “email loop” that could show a willingness to look the other way when Thomas’ staff asked for certain grants to be issued, even though there was no properly completed documentation.
Graham read a series of internal emails that he said showed that top grant officials never questioned the large amounts of money flowing into organizations controlled by Thomas. He noted that staff members raised their eyebrows at the lack of documentation and program descriptions related to an earmarked grant that Thomas’ staff directed to the Langston Century 21 Foundation, a golf-related nonprofit that Thomas used to siphon off the lion’s share of the stolen funds.
“Again, it’s the rest of the staff saying there’s something wrong here,” Graham said.
London said she could not recall conversations, outside of email, in which they questioned lenient practices under West or described political pressure to push incomplete grant proposals.
She also turned away certain questions from committee members, citing ongoing investigations into the parties associated with Thomas‘ crimes.
The Washington Times has since raised further questions about spending at the trust, which handed more than $100,000 to other groups not registered as nonprofits and others that don’t exist in city records. The organization also more than $400,000 to a Kentucky company to rent a giant heated tent and other equipment for RFK Stadium during the week of President Obama’s swearing-in, although the company faced a multimillion-dollar deficit.
Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown had suggested the trust should be shut down as a result of Thomas’ plea. Since then, he has emphasized the vital services the trust provides to children and families and called for patience while investigators look at the issue. While Brown might not like the idea of the trust still in operation, Counclman Graham would like to see the trust remain and eventually be back in full operation mode.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said Monday. “And we have to be very thoughtful.”
Officials within CYITC did say that federal authorities had asked that some operations of the trust be avoided while the federal criminal probe continues, so they aren’t running at full stream.
There is still more fallout from Thomas’ actions because youth advocates and parents have mentioned that some summer and academic programs could be forced to close if the government funds aren’t available. They may not be available because Thomas took the money or because they government limits the amount of funds CYITC receive.
Harry Thomas, Jr. is set for sentencing on May 3.