From his vantage point, District resident Lawrence E. Perry said he has no sympathy for disgraced former Councilmember Harry L. Thomas Jr., who was sentenced last week to three years and two months in prison for stealing at least $353,500 and filing a false tax return.
Perry, a Ward 7 resident who retired after working for years in the whisky industry, said Thomas – who represented Ward 5 on the D.C. Council from 2006 until his fall from grace – betrayed the public's sacred trust.
"If you do the crime, do the time," he said in an interview Tuesday night. "What gives him the right to think he has access to public funds? He knew how much he was going to make when he took the job. He wasn't honest to himself or his constituents."
Perry said he often spends time with Ward 5 residents and many of them are disappointed by Thomas' behavior and they have expressed concern about the extent to which his theft of public money has sullied the people he used to represent.
"It took a lot of conniving to do what he did," said Perry. "How can you trust him again? He knew what he was doing. He came from a good family and he betrayed them and those he was elected to serve."
Thomas resigned his seat in January, just hours after federal prosecutors filed charges of embezzlement and filing false tax returns against him. On Jan. 6, he pled guilty to felony counts of theft of government funds and falsifying tax returns.
One pervasive rumor swirling around in some circles, since Thomas' May 3 sentencing, is the idea that he took the fall for his wife Diane Romo Thomas. She served as a board member of TeamThomas, a nonprofit organization that her husband used to funnel the stolen money.
There's nothing that has come to light so far that puts any credence on the rumor, but that hasn't stopped tongues from wagging. Be that as it may, Perry said Thomas' time behind bars will serve as a warning to all who sit on the D.C. Council that they can't just arbitrarily steal from public coffers.
Ward 5 Republican candidate Tim Day disagrees.
"His sentencing isn't the end of the story," said Day of Thomas. "It's more about what has to be done to tighten measures to make sure this doesn't happen again. [Councilmember Jim] Graham just issued subpoenas related to the case but it's late. That should have been done when Thomas was charged."
"I hope something comes out of this. We have bad people who [are] allowed to do what they want. A lot of people want to just close the book. I agree with them and reassure them that their dollars need to be protected."
Day fears that if checks and balances aren't put in place and grants and other public money is not rigorously monitored, those elected officials inclined to pilfer will have few safeguards against their thievery.
Day, 40, and the DC Republican Party, were the first to report irregularities surrounding TeamThomas, the nonprofit organization run by Thomas. Later, the Office of the Attorney General started its own investigation.
Day, owner of Prizm Consulting, LLC, a full-service company which offers, tax, accounting and business solutions to small businesses, start-ups and nonprofits, said he began studying all of the entities associated with or connected to Thomas and found a plethora of discrepancies.
Day's research led to the creation of a 27-page document, a roadmap essentially, which by following the money illustrated the depth of Thomas' duplicity. Thomas used several nonprofit organizations he'd created to funnel the $353,500 through, with the money ending up in his pockets.
During a January interview, Day said he felt good that someone who was never interested in representing his ward's interests had been exposed and removed.
Day, who was born and raised in Brookland in Ward 5, characterized Thomas' behavior as just one example of the ethical cancer that is choking the council. At present, the council is opening under a ethical cloud that has enveloped a number of its members.
Ward 5 candidate Frank Wilds said residents have seen what happened with Thomas and most are forgiving.
"My heart goes out to the family," he said.
Councilmembers Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), have been among the most vocal supporters of greater safeguards and stronger ethics laws and standards to govern the actions and behavior of their colleagues. So far, Wells said last week, it has been an uphill battle.
"[The sentencing is] just the closing of one chapter of a book still being written on D.C. government," he said. "I have other colleagues who [are] under a cloud. The mayor is under a cloud, the council chair is under a cloud, and there are other councilmembers – black and white – whose actions have been called into question."
Wells said the public perception is that councilmembers are willing to engage in the practice of "pay to play" and it appears as if some members are more interested in enjoying the perks and the power of their positions rather than acting ethically.
"They have raised constituency funds to spend for their own use – [on] water dispensers and tickets, for example," Wells, 55, said. "They have not met the challenge of turning around the perception of impropriety. We still have a crisis of ethics."
At the Thomas sentencing on May 3, he appeared remorseful when he addressed U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates.
"There is no excuse for my poor decisions. I was an elected official who used grant funds for my own use," a soft-spoken Thomas told the judge prior to sentencing. "What I did was wrong. I broke the law and accept the punishment. This has humiliated my family, my mother, the public, responsible public servants and community leaders."
Thomas, 51, said he'd lost his moral compass and acted with a sense of entitlement.
"... I put my needs above those of the people I serve, above my family. I betrayed them ... my actions have cost me a lifetime of work. The only thing I can do is accept responsibility and restore my integrity and honesty ... for the rest of my life I will try to make this right."
After Thomas was charged Avis Jones-DeWeever expressed dismay following the denouement of a case observers said played out like a Greek tragedy, replete with hubris, greed and human frailty.
"I hate to see that. It's very unfortunate circumstances," said Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women during an interview earlier this year. "People who he represented deserved to be represented honorably and for the full term. What's unfortunate is that it happened at all."
"When you're an elected official, there's an opportunity to take advantage of that trust people have given you. It's unfortunate for local politics and black elected officials."
Ward 5 resident and Democratic Party Chairman Robert Vinson Brannum embodied the personal toll the case has had on those who know Thomas.
"We knew this day would come; we [will] get through it," said Brannum, a Thomas friend of more than two decades who was inconsolable during the sentencing. "We were all surprised and disappointed [when we first heard]. It's always painful when this happens to someone who's a friend."