Link probed between D.C. councilman’s support, developer dollars

By: Michael Neibauer
Examiner Staff Writer
July 17, 2009
The D.C. campaign finance office is investigating the connection between Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas Jr.’s support for a proposed residential development and the builder’s donation of thousands of dollars to a nonprofit Thomas established.

The conflict of interest investigation was launched after the editor of a Brookland newsletter requested an informal opinion of Thomas’s dealings with developer EYA as it sought approval for a proposed development in the Northeast neighborhood. The 237-unit townhome development near the St. Paul’s College campus was approved late last year.

The Office of Campaign Finance found Abigail Padou’s allegations warranted a full investigation, documents obtained by The Examiner show.

“I submitted the facts upon which my article was based to the office of campaign finance and asked them to issue an ‘interpretive opinion,’ because everyone involved has a right to know whether what took place was improper or not,” Padou told The Examiner in an e-mail.

An article in the May/June edition of the Heartbeat claimed Thomas wrote a letter to the Zoning Commission last summer supporting the development the day after EYA agreed to include $40,000 for the Ward 5 Business Council in the project’s “amenities package.”

The final package, which includes several contributions to benefit the community, guaranteed $55,000 to the business council for grants and training, according to the zoning commission’s order.

Padou based the article, she said, on thousands of pages of documents, many obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Thomas “established” the Ward 5 Business Council, he touts on his Web site, to help small businesses succeed through networking, educational seminars and advocacy. The only information online about the group is found on Thomas’s Web site.

The councilman’s senior policy analyst, Victoria Leonard-Chambers, testified before the Zoning Commission on July 17, 2008, in support of the EYA project. But at no point did Leonard-Chambers disclose that she is an incorporator of — and serves on the board of — the business council, according to the meeting’s transcript.

Thomas and Leonard-Chambers declined comment for this article, citing the active investigation.

Jack Lester, the company’s vice president, said the council member got behind EYA well before the amenities package was finalized.

“The amenities package was discussed, negotiated and vetted thoroughly through numerous public meeting long after he expressed support for the project,” Lester said.

Thomas and Padou have clashed before. In February, the council member threatened the publication’ s main advertiser unless Padou issued a retraction for an article published seven months earlier.

The campaign finance office is expected to issue its findings by September.

mneibauer@washingto nexaminer. com

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