The most notable scoundrel in recent Washington D.C. government history is former mayor and current City Council member Marion Barry, he of “The bitch set me up!” fame. What marked Barry was and is his remarkable shamelessness. Whether he was caught smoking crack, or giving government salaries to girlfriends, or not paying his taxes, or engaging in any number of other public and personal outrages, his attitude has always been to shrug his shoulders and presume that everyone will just let him go on being an elected political leader, as if his complete disrespect for law, honesty and responsibility is irrelevant to his qualifications to serve. And you know what? In the District of Columbia, he is correct.
He is also not alone in this attitude, in part because Barry has helped mightily to warp the ethical culture in his city over the past three decades. His most recent disciple is D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who has just agreed to repay the District $300,000 of the taxpayer dollars he misappropriated for his personal and political use. D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan announced last week that his office was withdrawing a one million dollar lawsuit against Thomas in exchange for that settlement, saving the District the cost of litigation. The lawsuit had been backed up with strong evidence that Thomas used public funds to fund golf trips to Pebble Beach, buy himself an Audi SUV, and in a nice touch of class, pay for a $143.71 visit to Hooters. Funds budgeted by the council for youth baseball was diverted by Thomas to Team Thomas, a nonprofit founded and controlled by the Council member. Naturally, Thomas also was shown to have engaged in plenty of old-fashioned graft, soliciting gifts and contributions from private businesses contracting with the city.
Is Thomas ashamed? Contrite? Apologetic? Nah! And he isn’t planning on leaving his job, either. Instead, he issued this nauseating statement, saying in part:
“It is not uncommon for grantees, including DC agencies receiving federal funds, to have expenditures disallowed.”
Translation: “I got caught.”
“It is my desire to move forward with the disposition of this matter in a way that will cause the least disruption to my family and my constituency, and that will save the DC government and its citizens the time and expense of litigation, as well.”
Translation: “I am keeping my job, even though everyone knows I’m a crook.”
“I appreciate the trust the citizens have placed in me during these allegations.”
Translation: “The people of my district are complete fools, and will tolerate anything.”
“I have used my role as councilmember to tend to the needs and interests of those who I have the privilege to serve.”
Translation: “…But mainly me and my cronies, plus tips for the Hooters girls.”
“These actions are being taken to ensure that the trust the public has placed in me is maintained and honored.”
Translation: “If you believe that I would pay $300,000 to the government if I hadn’t stolen at least that much in the first place, I can give you a good deal on a bridge I own in Brooklyn.”
Thomas stole, he was caught, and he fully expects to keep his job, because Marion Barry and his successors have made the citizens of D.C. immune to indignation over the schemes of unethical politicians. Thomas’s kind of sleazy conduct and is what they expect, and it is what they will continue to get.
Thomas, meanwhile, won’t even admit he did anything wrong, and quite possibly believes he didn’t do anything wrong. Like Marion Barry in D.C., ex-governor Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, Charlie Rangel in the U.S. Congress, and many other elected officials in our municipal, state and national governments, he is working hard to establish the tradition that has devastated so many other countries: being elected to a government position is a license to steal. Yes, occasionally you’ll miscalculate and have to pay some money back, but you’ll still probably come out way ahead.
In the end, it isn’t Thomas’s shamelessness that is so shocking, but that of the citizens of the District of Columbia. They continue to elect corrupt politicians in droves, and refuse to hold them accountable for their conduct.