Lewis Thomas III, Philly’s political shape-shifter, pleads guilty to campaign theft
From charter schools to politics, Lewis Thomas III kept changing his life story as he moved around the country. Back in Philly, he pleaded guilty to stealing from a campaign fund.
When Lewis Thomas III was charged last year with raiding a former Philadelphia judge’s campaign fund for everything from personal airfare to iTunes purchases, his attorney said he’d hoped to “get this resolved” once Thomas had the chance to provide “explanations” for the missing money.
The case has now been resolved — with Thomas pleading guilty to theft and receiving stolen property.
Thomas, 43, a notoriously inscrutable bit player in Philly politics, was sentenced Tuesday to three years of probation and was required to pay $14,000 in restitution. He also must perform 75 hours of community service and is prohibited from serving as chairman or treasurer of any political action committee, according to court records.
“It was blatant fraud,” said Sam Stretton, attorney for former Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, whose campaign committee Thomas pilfered during her 2017 primary run for district attorney. Thomas was supposed to be managing the campaign.
A statewide investigating grand jury alleged in December 2020 that Thomas had used Deni’s campaign funds for personal expenses that included an Apple watch, a MacBook Air laptop, 90 iTunes purchases for games and music, his son’s private-school tuition, and airline tickets to Orlando.
“I just couldn’t get over it. He needs to be retired from politics,” Stretton said Thursday. “Whether that will happen …”
Thomas, a North Philly native, has a history of dusting himself off and getting back in the game. Sometimes in another town. With a whole new life story.
In 2015, when Thomas was considering running for City Council, the Daily News reported on how he had grossly embellished his resumé and landed leadership roles at charter schools in Washington, Cleveland, and New York City.
Parents in Cleveland, where he served as principal, called him “Dr. Thomas” because he falsely told them he had a doctorate. Thomas also reportedly claimed to have worked as a “sought-after adviser” for then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and to be a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, among other embellishments.
When his stories unraveled, he would go somewhere else and start again.
“Stop it if you can,” Tim Goler, who had advised the Cleveland charter school where Thomas served as principal, warned the Daily News back in 2015.
Goler said he first realized Thomas was lying about his background when he tried to give him the Alpha Phi Alpha handshake. Thomas looked at him as if there were something wrong with his hand.
But Thomas could not be stopped. Sure enough, when he returned to Philadelphia, he went into politics — and found the environment somewhat welcoming.
Months after the Daily News report, Thomas appeared on a Convention Center podium to join State Sen. Anthony Williams in calling for the resignation of a state Supreme Court justice and others involved in the so-called Porngate scandal.
In 2018, when Thomas decided to run for state representative, the powerful Local 98 Electricians union pumped $25,000 into his campaign, which was ultimately unsuccessful. It didn’t hurt that Thomas is the nephew of Tommie St. Hill, a longtime political consultant for the union.
“People who are good to us, we’re good to,” then-Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty told The Inquirer. Dougherty was convicted last month on federal bribery charges and is facing substantial prison time.
Thomas, through his attorney, declined to comment Thursday on his criminal case. He pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges, and two felony charges were dropped.
A spokesperson for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro also declined to comment on the case, other than to confirm the details of the plea deal.
“When entrusted to run a campaign, managing the donations to ensure they are used in proper and ethical ways is paramount,” Shapiro said in filing the charges in December 2020. “This defendant took advantage of his access to campaign donations to fund his personal endeavors.”
Stretton said he received the $14,000 in restitution this week and forwarded the proceeds to Deni — after he ensured that the check had cleared.
Stretton said he was initially impressed by Thomas, sizing him up as an intelligent, decent person.
The restitution didn’t fully cover Deni’s losses, Stretton said, but he hopes that the guilty plea will stop future theft and other acts of impropriety within Philadelphia political campaigns.
“Hopefully,” he said, “it will serve as some sort of deterrent to other people who do fraudulent things.”