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Press Release

Former D.C. Government Employee Pleads Guilty to Stealing more than $350,000 from the District’s Project Empowerment Program

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Columbia

Defendant Previously Served Prison Sentence for Different Theft Scheme

            WASHINGTON – Rhayda Barnes Thomas, 52, of Washington, D.C., a former employee of the D.C. Department of Employment Services’ Project Empowerment Program, pleaded guilty today to stealing more than $350,000 from the Project Empowerment Program between May 2015 and April 2018.

            The announcement was made by U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves, District of Columbia Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas, and Inspector in Charge Damon E. Wood, Washington Division, U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

            Barnes Thomas pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud before the Honorable Richard J. Leon, who scheduled sentencing for August 16, 2023. As part of her plea agreement, she agreed to pay restitution of at least $354,000, and to be liable for a forfeiture money judgment totaling $318,413.

            The D.C. government’s Project Empowerment Program provides employment services to D.C. residents who have multiple barriers to employment, such as a history of substance abuse, a history of job cycling (not maintaining steady employment), and either a felony conviction or previous incarceration. One phase of the program consists of subsidized employment, which involves the D.C. government paying the wages of participants while they work at worksites. During this phase, worksites were responsible for entering participants’ work hours into an electronic system used by Project Empowerment. In turn, the D.C. government would then have payments corresponding with those hours issued to accounts associated with participants, usually in the form of pre-paid bank debit cards.

            In 2011, Barnes Thomas pleaded guilty in Maryland federal court to theft involving a federal government program in connection with a scheme to use federal funds received by her school employer to buy technology for herself, her family, and friends. She was sentenced to 27 months in prison for that offense.

            In August 2013, following her release from prison, Barnes Thomas participated in the Project Empowerment Program. She ultimately was hired by the program as a Program Support Assistant in February 2014. From May 2015 through April 2018, she stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the program by reviving 16 former Project Empowerment participants’ profiles and modifying entries in a database to falsely show them as working for a non-profit organization, which was not true.  She also used the name of a former employee from the non‑profit organization to enter and approve time in the database showing individuals as working when they were not. In addition, she ordered or caused to be ordered replacement and new prepaid debit cards on behalf of the former Project Empowerment participants whose profiles she fraudulently revived. As a result of her conduct, she caused the D.C. government to request that Wells Fargo Bank load funds onto those prepaid debit cards, which she controlled.

            In announcing the guilty plea, U.S. Attorney Graves, Inspector General Lucas, and Inspector in Charge Wood commended the work of those who investigated the case from the D.C. Office of the Inspector General, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Criminal Investigations Unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. They also acknowledged the efforts of individuals from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kondi Kleinman and David Gorman, Financial Analyst Bryan Snitselaar, Paralegal Specialists Michon Tart, Mariela Andrade, and Amanda Rohde, and former Paralegal Specialists Brittany Phillips and Aisha Keys.

Updated May 17, 2023

Financial Fraud
Press Release Number: 23-265