Millicent West's long fall from grace ended Friday when the former director of the D.C. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management pleaded guilty to tax evasion in federal court. She had helped disgraced former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. use money from a nonprofit trust fund intended for poor at-risk children to pay for an inaugural party.
After multiple public denials, West finally admitted that she had knowingly provided the Internal Revenue Service with false grant documents between Oct. 2008 and Sept. 2009, while heading the nonprofit DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.
Thomas, then head of the D.C. Young Democrats, pressured West into having the tax-supported trust pay more than $100,000 for the "51st State Inaugural Ball," headlined by Chuck Brown on the night of President Obama's 2009 swearing-in, according to court documents. At the time, the City Paper described the gala as "an epic blowout at the Wilson Building." The betrayal was reminiscent of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who used gift cards donated to help poor children to buy herself an Xbox, only this theft was on a much larger scale.
Prosecutors said that West concealed the fraud by sending the money to a tax-exempt entity run by Thomas, knowing "that the true beneficiaries of the grant funds were political entities and individuals that were neither tax exempt nor otherwise eligible to receive the funds." So she not only helped Thomas fleece poor D.C. children, but federal taxpayers, as well.
As a willing accomplice and a liar who pretended she had no idea that Thomas used the trust funds unlawfully, West deserves every minute of the three years in prison she could receive under the federal statute when she's sentenced on May 24. But she will likely receive leniency as part of her plea deal.
The irreparable damage done to West's once-sterling reputation was self-inflicted. Appointed to one of the top city jobs by former Mayor Adrian Fenty, West resigned as homeland security director in January 2012, still claiming innocence. Now her guilty plea casts an ethical shadow on grants administered by that agency, as well.
A long-overdue audit of the trust's books for fiscal year 2010 still has not been released, and most private donations have dried up. Unable or unwilling to prevent the trust's appalling misuse of city tax dollars, council members should stop funding what has become yet another unwelcome symbol of political corruption.