A Washington federal judge sentenced former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. this morning to serve 38 months in prison, following the Ward 5 Democrat's guilty plea in January to theft and tax charges.
Thomas pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $353,000 in public funds, including money earmarked for youth sports programs, and filing false tax returns. U.S. District Judge John Bates said that while he believed Thomas had shown "genuine remorse," his "betrayal" of the public trust and some of the city's most vulnerable youths warranted a "significant period of incarceration."
Addressing Bates shortly before the sentenced was announced, Thomas said that there was "no excuse for my poor decisions," and that he was prepared to "accept the responsibility for my actions." His attorneys had asked for a sentence of 18 months. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Haray asked for a sentence of 46 months, arguing that Thomas' crimes represented "an all-time low for the people of this city."
Bates left the question of how much money Thomas owed the city unresolved, though. In the plea agreement, Thomas had admitted to knowingly embezzling $353,000, but Bates pointed to subsequent filings from the D.C. Office of the Attorney General stating that the city’s loss included an additional $100,000. Thomas’ attorney, Venable’s Seth Rosenthal, asked Bates to go with the $353,000 figure, but Bates said he would defer and asked for additional briefing.
One of Thomas’ attorneys, Frederick Cooke Jr. of Washington’s Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke, said that Thomas and his attorneys would not be taking questions or making a statement following the hearing. Thomas’ lead attorneys in court were Rosenthal and his Venable colleague, Karl Racine.
In a written statement, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen Jr. said that Thomas “was driven by greed to steal from the very children he claimed to champion…This prison sentence is just punishment for his flagrant abuse of the trust placed in him by the people of the District of Columbia.”
Thomas was elected to the D.C. Council in November 2006. According to court filings, he was accused of embezzling $353,000 from 2007 to 2009, including funds earmarked for youth sports programs. He also admitted to filing false tax returns that didn’t reflect his unreported income. Thomas was charged on Jan. 5 and pleaded guilty the following day.
Thomas was accused of using the stolen funds to make lavish personal purchases, from a luxury sport-utility vehicle and motorcycle to clothing, restaurant meals and vacations. The attorney general’s office, in a letter to Bates, said that the city also lost $100,000 after Thomas improperly diverted funds to pay for an event related to the 2009 presidential inauguration.
In the plea deal, the government agreed to recommend sentencing guidelines of between 37 to 46 months in prison, although Bates noted in court this morning that the actual guidelines ran between 41 to 51 months. Haray said the government was seeking the maximum sentence set out in the plea deal “to send a loud and clear message to elected officials.”
“That message is simple,” Haray said. “If you steal from the people you have sworn to serve, you will pay a high price.” He said it was hypocritical of Thomas to ask for leniency because of his community service, since he admitted to stealing from the youth sports programs he claimed to support.
Racine told Bates that Thomas wasn’t seeking “a slap on the wrist.” Thomas acknowledged that he broke the law, Racine said, but argued that the government’s proposed sentence failed to reflect Thomas’ years of service to the community and his decision to immediately accept responsibility.
Noting that Thomas comes from a family of public servants – his late father, Harry Thomas Sr., was also a city councilmember – Racine said that service is “in his DNA.” He urged Bates not to look at the government’s “snapshot” of Thomas’s life and said that even in his misdeeds, Thomas “has still provided an important lesson to children: Take responsibility when you have done wrong.” Bates also heard testimony from a young man Thomas had mentored, a former partner in youth sports programs and Thomas’ mother, Romaine Thomas, a prominent local figure.
Later in the hearing, Rosenthal argued that 18 months in prison was an appropriate sentence because Thomas wasn’t a threat to the city, and that a lower sentence would still act as a deterrent against future wrongdoing by public officials. “It’s the certainty of punishment, not the severity of punishment,” he said.
Thomas, in his statement to the court, said that after reflecting on his decisions, he had concluded that he had lost his “moral compass” and stole the funds because of “a sense of entitlement.” He pledged to rededicate his life to serving the community. “This is my weakest moment and my lowest moment,” he said.
Both sides will now have several weeks to file briefs on the issue of restitution. Bates had pressed Rosenthal to explain why he shouldn’t go with the higher number of $446,000, since that was the total amount of loss based on all the facts of the case. He wondered aloud if ordering $353,000 in restitution “won’t make the District of Columbia whole.”
Rosenthal said that Thomas had admitted to “knowingly” misappropriating $353,000, not $446,000. Bates asked both sides to submit briefs addressing the case law surrounding the issue.
Thomas’ attorneys said he would surrender voluntarily to begin serving his sentence, but did not specify a date or time.