Commentary: Harry Thomas Jr. Gets Three Years, But It Won't Quell DC Corruption

Why the case of the Ward 5 council member, sentenced to 38 months for stealing from public funds, won’t deter future theft.

By: Harry Jaffe

Will the sentencing of Harry Thomas Jr. quell the city's corruption? Short answer: no. The urge to steal from the public coffers is too embedded, not just in Washington, DC, but in the human condition.

Listen to Harry Thomas Jr. as he explained to the federal judge Thursday why he stole more than $350,000 from funds that were supposed to establish athletic programs for kids:

"I concluded I took the money because it was a sense of entitlement and somehow, as an elected official, I lost my moral compass. I went astray and lost my way."

Let's pause and parse that for a moment. First, Thomas had to consider and "conclude" why he took the funds, which, by the way, could amount to more than $400,000 (the feds are still investigating and accounting). That statement lets Thomas off the hook and downplays his crimes.

By law, Thomas was entitled to $125,000 a year for serving as council member for Ward 5. That's hardly chump change. And keep in mind the council seat is a part-time job. Thomas was free to work as a coach or run a nonprofit devoted to teaching kids how to play baseball. Heck, he could have worked as a lawyer. Five of the 13 council members derive income as lawyers.

But rather than work another job, Thomas stole from the city. His explanation--"I went astray and lost my way"--seems tame. Thomas was greedy and devious and used his ample business skills to plunder public funds.

I wish I could survey the recent landscape of corruption in the DC government and see cause for relief, let alone hope. You might remember the case of Harriette Walters, who was found to have ripped off nearly $50 million over many years while she was working as a mid-level official with the DC tax office. She was exposed in 2007 and sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2009. Were tax officials chastened? In 2011 federal prosecutors charged another tax collector, Mary Ayers-Zander, with stealing more than $400,000. She started stealing in 2007, according to prosecutors, the year Walters's scam was detected.

So, no--it seems greed often trumps caution.

And it will not help deter those bent on stealing to see that Harry Thomas Jr. will have to spend 38 months in a federal penitentiary. He's headed for a swank medium-security prison. And he was driven away from his court appearance in a black BMW SUV--which cost more than the one he bought with stolen public funds.