LEWIS THOMAS III once said that he wanted to be president of the United States. If his resume is to be believed, the North Philly native practically has one foot in the White House door.
Thomas, who has been laying the foundation for a possible City Council run, is only 37, but he's already lived what he has described as a "rich and varied" life.
According to news reports and Thomas' shifting online biographies, he has traveled the world, from Brazil to Africa to Russia, obtained two master's degrees and a doctorate, "transformed" a low-performing Washington, D.C., high school and worked as a "sought after advisor and campaign manager for candidates across the country," including then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Thomas, who graduated from Lincoln University and worked in the charter-school business until recently, said that the White House once named him one of the country's top 50 innovative principals. In Cleveland, where he ran a charter school, Thomas reportedly represented himself as an Alpha Phi Alpha member. Parents called him "Dr. Thomas" because he said he had a doctorate.
Tim Goler calls him something else: con artist.
Goler, who headed the advisory board for the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy when Thomas was principal in 2005, let out a long sigh when the Daily News called and mentioned Thomas' name.
"I don't really know what to say," Goler said.
Goler said he stumbled onto one misrepresentation after Thomas was hired as the Cleveland charter school's principal. He said he tried to give Thomas the Alpha Phi Alpha handshake and Thomas looked at him as if he had a problem with his hand.
"His resume seemed outlandish," Goler said. "And then he comes to a little charter school in Cleveland? It didn't make sense to me."
Thomas, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against state Rep. Curtis Thomas in the 2010 primary, has been working behind the scenes for the past six months to enter Philadelphia politics. He said he'll run for Council President Darrell Clarke's seat if Clarke runs for mayor. If Clarke stays put, "we'll revaluate," he said.
Thomas, who grew up at 11th Street and Erie Avenue, has claimed to have a master's and a doctorate from Howard University. But university records show that he never received either. Bryan Cotton, membership coordinator for Alpha Phi Alpha, said Thomas is not a member of the fraternity.
Thomas also once claimed to have a master's degree from the University of Illinois, according to the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. But university spokesman Chris Harris said records show that Thomas attended the university for only a couple of months in 1999 "in a nondegree status."
Most recently, Thomas served as the principal of the Urban Dove Team Charter School in Brooklyn, where his checkered past was exposed by Chalkbeat, a website covering education.
"He told me he was a lawyer. Then he told me he was a doctor," a school staff member told Chalkbeat last year.
Patrick Fagan, a member of Urban Dove's board, said in February that Thomas also had claimed to be a member of a board of trustees of the University of Illinois, but later backed away from that under questioning, the website reported.
"The scope of his deception is really breathtaking," said Sarah Darville, the Chalkbeat New York bureau chief who dug into Thomas' resume.
Thomas was forced out of the Cleveland job in 2005 after his past came to light. He left a Washington, D.C., charter school in 2004 after two months due to discrepancies in his work history, according to the Plain Dealer.
In 2010, Thomas' deception got him fired from Phase 4 Learning Center, the alternative-education company's CEO told Chalkbeat. In 2011, he landed a principal's job at another New York charter school, but was gone in a few months.
It appears that the cycle is starting again in Philadelphia - except this time in politics, not education.
"It's all premeditated," Goler said of Thomas' embellishments. "I think he actually has a mental disorder. The guy needs help."
Then again, Goler added: "Probably the best place for him is in politics. People seem to get away with this stuff."
In an interview with the Daily News yesterday, Thomas finally stopped bobbing and weaving, as he has in past news stories. He came clean for the first time - sort of. He admitted to lying about having a doctorate from Howard University. He doesn't have a master's, either, he said.
"Obviously, I had embellished my resume," he said. "I should have been honest. I should have never done it. I've learned over time the way you represent yourself is how people will perceive you. You have to be open and honest about your credentials."
Thomas - who has been working with his uncle, longtime Democratic political consultant Tommie St. Hill, to build political support in North Philly - said he is not surprised that his past has caught up with him again.
"I expected it to come up in the race. I was going to put it right on my website to address it head-on," Thomas said. "Have I made mistakes? Of course. Have I accepted responsibility for those mistakes? Absolutely."
But Thomas insisted yesterday that the media has embellished his embellishments.
He said he never claimed to have a master's degree from the University of Illinois, to have worked for Obama or Clinton, or to have been a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans, as the Plain Dealer reported in 2006. (The now-retired reporter, Janet Okoben, stood by her work, emailing, "The story is sound.")
And, Thomas said, the lies stopped in Cleveland in 2005.
"I got caught and moved on with my life," Thomas said.
In 2010, however, Thomas starting fibbing again during a campaign stop in the 181st District race in North Philly, telling the audience that he "received my graduate degrees from Howard University in Washington, D.C."
An online bio circulated in that race says Thomas received his "master's and doctorate in educational administration" from Howard.
The speech was posted on YouTube.
"As we go through life, there are so many people that present themselves to us. Sometimes we don't know who those people are," Thomas told the audience, explaining the importance of knowing candidates' background.
"It is always important for each and every one of us to know what's missing from the pieces of the puzzle," he added.
Thomas said this week that he sits on the board of the YMCA in North Philadelphia and serves as chief operating officer and executive vice president for St. Hill's company, Diversified Consultants.
Thomas maintains a strong Facebook presence, recently speaking out against police abuse of minorities and in support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
St. Hill, a regular City Hall presence who received millions of dollars in city contracts and city-backed loans during the Ed Rendell and John Street administrations, made headlines in 2008 after the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 98 admitted that it had secretly paid St. Hill and another consultant to distribute racially charged fliers attacking Michael Nutter in the final days of the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary.
It is unclear where Thomas would look to enter local politics if Clarke decides not to run for mayor. But Thomas said he and his uncle have been lining up financial support.
"We have been working hard behind the scenes for the past six months," Thomas said. "We've been lining up support and working hard, both on the political side and with ward leaders."
Goler, the former Cleveland school official, sounded exasperated to learn that Thomas is seeking elected office in Philadelphia.
"Stop it if you can," he said.
On Twitter: @wbender99