At drainage district corruption trial, it’s a tale of dueling conspiracies

Allan and Joann Thomas are in trial in Seattle on fraud charges.

It has been a tale of two conspiracies at the trial against former Drainage District 5 commissioner Allan Thomas and his wife, Joann Thomas.

It’s a case with implications for Enumclaw and beyond, as attorneys spotlight the oft-overlooked inner workings of special taxing districts and the increasing tension of urban development in rural places.

The first conspiracy presented to the jury May 9 in the U.S. District Court in Seattle is one you’ve probably heard before: Federal prosecutors, in their opening statement, claimed that Enumclaw dairy farmer Allan Thomas funneled taxpayer money intended for drainage improvements through shell companies, then pocketed the money to pay the bills on his own dairy farm.

Attorneys said they’ll demonstrate that between 2012 and 2019, Allan and Joann Thomas “executed a brazen scheme” to defraud the public, including forging signatures, fabricating public meetings and lying about maintenance work in the district. Allan Thomas had been commissioner of the district for 37 years prior to resigning in 2019.

“This is a case about the trust (taxpayers) place in their public officials, and how the defendants broke that trust, by pocketing over $450,000 in money they promised to use for public good,” an attorney for the U.S. said.

But in the second conspiracy presented to jurors, the Thomas couple are the victims: Defense attorney Terrence Kellogg claimed that former City Attorney Mike Reynolds, eager to develop more land in the city, found his target in the expansive Thomas farm on the east side of town. Using the news media as his unwitting ally, he and the city crafted a plot to force Allan Thomas to relinquish the property, Kellogg said, so that city officials could turn it into something more profitable.

“I’m talking about the conspiracy by city officials, aided and abetted by the media, as a designed effort to strip Mr. Thomas of his family farm,” Kellogg said.

The farm comprises a full one-eighth of the size of the entire city of Enumclaw and one-third of all of Drainage District 5, Kellogg said in court.

“What a tax base for the city of Enumclaw” the Thomas property would be, Kellogg said: “Just imagine, instead of a flooding, challenged dairy, it could be a residential suburb. It could be developed. Instead of farms, you have postage-stamp residential condos.”

Joann and Allan Thomas are accused of conspiracy, aggravated identity theft, money laundering, and mail and wire fraud. Two attorneys represent the U.S. in court, while the Thomas couple, who may or may not testify, are flanked by their attorneys: Kellogg for Joann and Browne for Allan.

Jury selection took up most of Monday. Attorneys wrapped up opening statements Tuesday morning and the prosecution began their case calling Reynolds to the stand. Prosecutors plan to also call Ken Olson, a former commissioner of the district, and Alex Thomas, the son of Allan Thomas from a previous marriage, to testify.

The case is expected to run through the second and third weeks of May, with the case going to the jury likely around May 17 or 18.

Special taxing districts raise money for highly specific work in communities and are typically overseen by locally-elected commissioners. Washington has 104 diking and drainage districts alone, according to a 2019 report from the Washington State Auditor. At Drainage District 5, like all others, elected commissioners are supposed to spend property taxes from residents of the district to keep the ditches clear and healthy, reducing the risk of flooding and helping fish migration.

Meanwhile, comprising 155 acres just north of Roosevelt Avenue, the Thomas farm is one of the only farmland preservation parcels inside city limits. For years, city officials have looked for ways to urbanize it, but changing the designation of the property would call for a countywide vote and a comprehensive plan change.

Enumclaw Mayor John Wise in 2007 wrote a letter to King County calling the farm’s operation “problematic due to encroaching urban development.” Former mayor Liz Reynolds said in 2013 that she envisioned turning the farm into an agriculture-tourism attraction, explaining that she would “hate to see a beautiful pastoral setting (like the Thomas Farm) turned into houses.”

FYI: Courtroom sketch

Photography was not allowed inside the courtroom, so this publication worked with Seattle-based artist Lois Silver, who took sketches of the proceedings for media covering the trial. Courtroom rules require all in attendance to wear facemasks.

Attorney John Henry Browne represents Allan Thomas in the drainage district trial. Sketch by Seattle-based artist Lois Silver.

Attorney John Henry Browne represents Allan Thomas in the drainage district trial. Sketch by Seattle-based artist Lois Silver.