The city auditor has asked the D.C. inspector general to investigate allegations of financial irregularities by the head of the Metropolitan Police Department Fifth District Citizens Advisory Council (5DCAC), who is a political appointee of Mayor Vincent C. Gray and an ally of Ward 5 Democrat Harry Thomas Jr.
Acting D.C. Auditor Yolanda Branche referred the matter to Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby for an investigation last month after reviewing a complaint by former 5DCAC Treasurer Debbie Smith-Steiner, according to an Aug. 1 letter. Ms. Smith-Steiner accused Mr. Brannum of using 5DCAC’s checking account with a debit card in violation of the group’s bylaws and with obstructing efforts to account for the funds, according to the documents.
Mr. Brannum, tapped by the Gray administration for a temporary job with the Office of Veterans Affairs in July, also serves as president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations and as vice chairman of the Ward 5 Democrats. He currently is running for chairman of the latter group.
A Gray campaign supporter, he is the second Ward 5 political figure and Thomas ally in recent months to have been referred to the inspector general for investigation. In June, William Shelton, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B, resigned after the D.C. auditor referred allegations that he misappropriated $30,000 to the inspector general and the D.C. attorney general.
Mr. Thomas also was accused earlier this year of diverting some $300,000 in funds intended for youth sports initiatives. In a settlement with the District, he recently agreed to refund the money. A criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office is ongoing.
But while the Team Thomas scandal was a high-profile affair for which Mr. Thomas is being held accountable, the Brannum matter arises from the nebulous world of unregulated advisory councils that possess fundraising ability while undergoing little or no oversight or government scrutiny.
The Brannum matter bears some resemblance to the Team Thomas scandal in that both 5DCAC and Team Thomas held themselves out as tax-exempt charities registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3). However, Team Thomas was exposed as not having attained that status and a search of the IRS website and the nonprofit reporting agency GuideStar’s website yielded no information to confirm 5DCAC as an allowable 501(c)(3) charity.
Asked to comment on her office’s referral of the Brannum matter, Ms. Branch said she is required to refer possible fraud and illegal activities to an outside agency but declined to comment further.
The inspector general did not respond to requests for comment.
5DCAC is a nonprofit group that works with the MPD and the Fifth District police headquarters to implement programs aimed at community involvement in assisting police crime-solving and prevention, according to its website.
In addition to the CAC in each police district, the Chief of Police’s Citizens Advisory Council provides input on matters affecting the entire MPD. The Chief’s CAC consists of the elected chairpersons of each district CAC, as well as at-large members, appointed by the chief, who represent communities of interest in the District.
James D. Berry Jr., chairman of the Chief’s CAC, did not return a call and email requesting comment.
5DCAC also has raised tens of thousands of dollars, Ms. Smith-Steiner said, and lists as “Business Sponsors and Partners” on its website such corporations as BET Networks, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Fort Myer Construction, M.C. Dean, Target and Verizon. Few of those companies would return calls for comment, much less confirm any donations to the group.
Ms. Smith-Steiner claims the group does little more than organize an annual gala and other social events.
“They don’t do any of the activities in their mission statement,” she said. “I encouraged them to put out pamphlets and information to the community, but they aren’t doing anything.”
In March 2010, as the group’s incoming treasurer, she wrote to Mr. Brannum about “the paucity of records documenting the organization’s finances,” and warned it could “undermine public confidence in the 5DCAC.” She said undocumented expenditures from the account “indicate that no checks and balances are in place.”
In asking for an outside audit of the group’s finances, Ms. Smith-Steiner complained to Mr. Brannum that he allowed her predecessor to re-route bank statements to his home address without notifying the board, and wrote that “the practice of only one signer on the account leads to a possibility of questionable activity.”
She then admonished Mr. Brannum by citing his role as a board member with the defunct North Capitol Neighborhood Development Corporation, which she said ran into “major financial problems that caused them to close in 2004.”
Ms. Smith-Steiner resigned as the group’s treasurer in a letter on May 11, citing violations of the bylaws and interference by Mr. Brannum, and the “illegal financial activities” and “unethical behavior” of the group.
In her resignation letter she wrote that Mr. Brannum had accessed the group’s bank account without her knowledge in violation of the bylaws, and had been intercepting mail from the group’s post office box, forcing her to close the group’s bank account.
The Times was unable to determine the financial status of the group, whose online donation form lists a phone number for Mr. Brannum, and whose website directs treasurer inquiries to Mr. Brannum’s email account.
Ms. Smith-Steiner said Mr. Brannum’s control over the group was a point of concern for her. In her resignation letter, she noted that she was not supported by the group’s board of directors in her efforts to reform the group’s financial practices.
“It was also quite apparent that the majority of the members had organized to thwart my attempts to hold accountable the Chairperson, Robert Brannum, on his illegal financial activities with this organization,” she wrote.
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