Ex-DC councilmember pleads guilty to theft

January 6, 2012 - 1:40 PM
DC Corruption Councilman

FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2008 file photo, District of Columbia city council member Harry Thomas Jr., left, speaks in Washington. Authorities say Thomas has been charged with stealing more than $350,000 in government funds and filing false tax returns. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former D.C. councilmember pleaded guilty Friday to embezzling more than $350,000 in government funds earmarked for youth sports programs, accused of spending the money on a luxury SUV and travel to exclusive golf courses.

Harry Thomas Jr., who resigned hours after being charged Thursday, also admitted in federal court to filing a false tax return. He left the courtroom without commenting.

U.S. District Court Judge John Bates set sentencing for May 3. Sentencing guidelines call for between three and four years, but the decision is up to the judge.

Thomas, a 51-year-old Democrat and the son of a longtime D.C. councilmember, was elected to the 13-person council in 2006 to represent a majority-black, mixed-income section of the District of Columbia. He was re-elected in 2010.

The embezzlement allegations came to light last summer in a lawsuit against Thomas. The lawsuit accused him of diverting government funds and spending the money for his own benefit, including on a luxury SUV, travel and rounds of golf. He agreed to pay back $300,000 as part of a settlement with the attorney general's lawsuit, although he missed a $50,000 payment due Tuesday.

The tax return charge accuses Thomas of failing to report $356,000 in income between 2007 and 2009.

Thomas was also ordered to forfeit an SUV and a motorcycle that were seized last month by federal agents who raided his northeast Washington home.

Thomas was charged following days of plea negotiations between prosecutors and his defense lawyers. Mayor Vincent Gray and several council colleagues called for his resignation throughout the day and, on Thursday night, he issued a statement saying he was stepping down immediately. He apologized to his constituents and his family for what he said were "very serious mistakes" and lapses in judgment.

According to the district attorney general's lawsuit, Thomas steered the money into a nonprofit that provides golf programs for youth. That group then paid most of the grant money to an organization under Thomas' control, known as Team Thomas, the lawsuit said.

Team Thomas was supposed to use the funds for youth sports programs. But instead, Thomas spent the money on himself, the lawsuit said.

A special election is expected within months to fill his seat.

U.S. Attorney Ron Machen has scheduled a Friday afternoon news conference to discuss the case.