Aide to Former Council Member Harry L. Thomas, Jr. Pleads Guilty to Charge Involving $110,000 Grant That Funded an Inaugural Ball
Sixth Person to Plead Guilty in Investigation of Misuse of Funds
|U.S. Attorney’s Office July 19, 2013|
WASHINGTON—Ayawna Webster, who was an aide and chief of staff for former District of Columbia Council Member Harry L. Thomas, Jr., pled guilty today to a criminal tax charge for her role in channeling $110,000 in youth grant funds used to pay for an inaugural ball.
The guilty plea, which took place in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was announced by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen, Jr.; Valerie Parlave, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office; and Thomas J. Kelly, Special Agent in Charge of the Washington Field Office of the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation.
Webster, 36, of Washington, D.C., pled guilty to attempting to interfere with the administration of the Internal Revenue Service laws. The Honorable John D. Bates scheduled sentencing for November 1, 2013. The charge carries a maximum statutory sentence of three years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the parties have agreed that the likely range is up to six months of incarceration and a fine of $1,000 to $10,000.
Webster is the sixth person to plead guilty to charges in an ongoing investigation into activities involving former Council Member Thomas. Thomas pled guilty last year to charges stemming from a scheme in which he used more than $350,000 in taxpayers’ money that was earmarked for the arts, youth recreation, and summer programs for his own personal benefit, including to pay for vehicles, clothing, and trips. He resigned as a condition of his plea agreement and is now serving a 38-month prison sentence.
The others who have pled guilty include James Garvin and Marshall D. Banks, leaders of one of the non-profits used in the scheme. Both men, from the Langston in the 21st Century Foundation, pled guilty to misprision of a felony, a charge holding them accountable for failing to report and concealing the misappropriation of $392,000 in government grants. Additionally, Danita C. Doleman, the president of Youth Technology Institute, pled guilty to filing a false return in connection with her assistance in funneling public money to pay for the 51st State Inaugural Ball. Finally, Millicent D. West, the former director and chief executive officer of a non-profit organization that promotes youth opportunities, pled guilty to a criminal tax charge for her role in channeling the youth grant funds to pay for the ball.
Garvin and Banks were sentenced to three years of supervised probation, 80 hours of community service, and ordered to pay full restitution. Doleman and West are awaiting sentencing.
“Today Ayawna Webster became the sixth person to plead guilty as part of the investigation of her former boss, Council Member Harry Thomas, Jr.,” said U.S. Attorney Machen. “Her guilty plea is another reminder of the foolishness of going along with criminal schemes to placate corrupt public officials. This investigation is continuing.”
“Ms. Webster failed to report the illegal use of public funds, causing money dedicated to District of Columbia youth to be diverted to a single person for their own benefit,” said Assistant Director in Charge Parlave. “This plea, along with that of others who helped to conceal this scheme, shows that those who commit corruption, as well as those who allow it, will be held accountable for their actions.”
“IRS-Criminal Investigation is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to combat public corruption,” said Special Agent in Charge Kelly. “Ms. Webster’s plea today is a reminder to all that any abuse of the public trust is a serious matter and those violating that trust will be held accountable.”
Webster worked from January 2007 until December 2010 as Thomas’s director of constituent services. In January 2011, he promoted her to be his chief of staff. In addition to her work duties, Webster was the president of a local chapter of a political organization.
Thomas, who took office in January 2007 as the Ward 5 representative, served during his first term as chair of the council’s Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning, which involved oversight responsibility for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. In that role, he worked with a non-profit public-private partnership that provided resources and developed programs to benefit children and youth in the District of Columbia.
The partnership was primarily funded by the District of Columbia government through funds designated by the mayor and council for particular youth-related purposes. The partnership provided grants to organizations for programs tailored for children and youth.
The charge against Webster deals mostly with her role in the 51st State Inaugural Ball, held on January 20, 2009 in the Wilson Building. Thomas was closely involved in the planning. He had sought to host the event but was prohibited from doing so. He then asked Webster if her political organization would serve as the host. She agreed, and she then organized the event, including booking entertainment and contracting with caterers, janitorial services, and decoration providers, at Thomas’s direction.
The ball was an adult, formal, black-tie event open to members of the public who had purchased tickets for $51 apiece. Webster tried to get a liquor license for the ball, but the request was denied because of its location at the Wilson Building. Before the event occurred, Webster knew that ticket sales were not generating enough money to cover costs. As the event approached, Thomas assured Webster that she would get the funds to pay for the ball. However, after the event, she was unable to pay vendors. Thomas then directed Webster to contact a staff member, who was director of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning.
On January 29, 2009, this staff member submitted budget paperwork to the public-private partnership seeking a grant of $110,000 for Webster’s political organization that would fund a “youth/young adult inauguration celebration.” The public-private partnership requested that Webster’s organization complete a tax form to enable check processing. At the direction of the staff member, Webster subsequently completed a tax form, backdated to January 4, 2009, that falsely listed her organization’s name as “DC Young America.”
The grant recipient eventually was changed to the Youth Technology Institute, another non-profit, and new paperwork was submitted leading to the release of the funds.
In truth, the Youth Technology Institute immediately forwarded nearly the entire amount to Webster’s political organization. In addition to paying expenses for the inaugural ball, Webster received permission from Thomas to use some of the grant funds for other purposes, including expenses she incurred while traveling on behalf of her political organization. Also, funds were used to pay a vendor that supplied services to another of Thomas’s events.
In her plea, Webster also admitted failing to report her organization’s political activity. During a hearing in February 2010 of the District of Columbia Office of Campaign Finance, for example, she testified that the organization did not have any financial activity during the time period in which it actually obtained $104,500 for expenses associated with the inaugural ball.
Also, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, Webster never filed federal or District of Columbia tax returns on behalf of the organization.
In announcing the guilty plea, U.S. Attorney Machen, Assistant Director in Charge Parlave, and Special Agent in Charge Kelly praised the work of the investigators from the FBI’s Washington Field Office and IRS-CI who worked on the case. They also acknowledged the efforts of those who worked on the case form the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including Criminal Investigators Matthew Kutz, Mark Crawford, and Melissa Matthews; Paralegal Specialists Tasha Harris, Diane Hayes, Shanna Hays, Lenisse Edloe, and Monica Johnson; Legal Assistant Krishawn Graham; and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Fitzpatrick. Finally, they commended the work of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jonathan W. Haray, David Johnson, and James E. Smith, who are prosecuting the matter.