Loose Lips

Just Following Money Orders

At 6:58 p.m. on Mar. 10, 2011, Western Union sold two $500 money orders that were later given to Councilmember Vincent Orange’s campaign. A minute later, the same Western Union agent sold another $500 money order that was also headed to Orange.

At 7:04 p.m., a different Western Union agent sold two more $500 money orders, both of which, you guessed it, were destined for Orange’s campaign coffers.

All five money orders had another thing in common: They were signed by Jeff Thompson, a frequent campaign donor and the owner of a $322 million-a-year Medicaid contract with the District government, who is currently in the middle of what could be the biggest, most far-reaching federal investigation into local politics that the city has ever seen. LL obtained copies of the money orders through a Freedom of Information Act request. The signatures look like dead ringers for Thompson’s distinctive scrawl that shows up on city documents, including a $12 million settlement he signed with the District in 2008 after he was accused of overbilling millions in Medicaid payments.

The five Thompson-signed money orders were from three different companies, two of which business records show are owned or managed by Thompson. But the third company, according to records on file with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, has no obvious link with Thompson.

DCRA records say that  company, KMJ Development, belongs solely to Kweise Mfume Jr., the son of Kweise Mfume, the former Democratic congressman from Baltimore and head of the NAACP. Mfume, however, says that he signed over the company to Thompson in 2009 but that he misfiled the paperwork with the DCRA. Either way, KMJ Development has donated $9,500 to local races since 2006. The address used on campaign filings, though not in DCRA records, is the same as Thompson’s accounting firm.*

Why Thompson would sign two $500 money orders for a corporation he’s not legally affiliated with is a mystery. Thompson’s attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

But LL imagines Thompson’s lawyer is busy these days. Two weeks ago, federal agents raided Thompson’s home and offices, as well as the home of his long-time spokeswoman Jeanne Harris. This week, several D.C. councilmembers, as well as other local politicos, received subpoenas asking for copies of documents related to Thompson’s political contributions and his contracts with city government, news that NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood was first to report.

Thompson’s accounting firm, Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates, is one of the largest minority-owned accounting businesses in the country. He also owns D.C. Chartered Health, which has the $322 million Medicaid deal. He’s a well-wired political insider with ties to similarly situated players: His lobbyist on health care is David Wilmot, one of the city’s best-paid local influencers. When Thompson was sued by the city, he hired Fred Cooke Jr., the go-to attorney for councilmembers under siege.

Which means the prospect of an investigation into Thompson could leave more councilmembers under siege. While we wait to see just how much heat U.S. Attorney Ron Machen is packing, LL’s been trying to piece together a clearer picture of the vast network of campaign contributors with ties to Thompson. Last summer, Washington City Paper reported that Thompson, his companies, his employees, his contractors, and their family and friends have given about $730,000 to various races in the last decade. Some of the top recipients include Orange and Mayor Vince Gray, whose campaign has been under federal investigation for the last year.

But the $730,000 figure is an ultra-conservative tally that’s almost certainly short of the real target. Campaign finance reports showed numerous other donors whose patterns of giving track closely with Thompson’s network. These individuals and companies are giving to the same Thompson-backed candidates, on the same dates, and at the same amounts (almost always at the maximum allowed by law.) The pattern even extends to races outside of D.C., like last year’s governor’s race in Maryland, and the 2009 mayoral race in Atlanta.

LL couldn’t find a link between these donors and Thompson, so last summer’s article didn’t count their contributions. But LL’s been working since then to find possible Thompson ties though interviews and by searching incorporation documents and out-of-state campaign finance reports.

And now LL has new estimates, which are still probably too low. In all, LL found $75,000 in additional donations in the last decade from 15 individuals or companies with ties to Thompson. That makes the total contributions from Thompson’s network more than $800,000; the money went to every current member of the D.C. Council except Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells.

An example of the new connections: Phil Thornton, a Los Angeles-based T.V. producer who has donated $12,500 to various races since 2009. Thornton’s given in his own name and through two companies he’s affliated with, Savannah Productions and Ten 2 One Entertainment. His biography on Ten 2 One’s website says he started a consulting firm called Bright Star Entertainment. Like KMJ, Bright Star’s address is listed in campaign finance records as having the same address as Thompson’s D.C. accounting firm.

There is, of course, nothing illegal about having a large network of friends and associates around the country who write checks (or send money orders) when you host a political fundraiser, as Thompson has done for several local politicians. But besides the federal raid and the subpoenas, there are some other indications that all might not be right in the Thompson network.

Consider Orange’s about-face this week over Thompson, who he’s long refused to discuss. After ducking reporters for days (twice, Orange literally fled from LL to avoid answering questions about his campaign finances) Orange told the Washington Post’s editorial page Monday that there may be problems with past campaign donations. Orange said that after reviewing a slew of $1,000 money orders his 2011 campaign received, many of which were from the Thompson network, he found some that are “suspicious and questionable as to who actually paid for the money orders.”

Orange showed the Post some of the orders, and the paper noted that “some checks, ostensibly from different donors, have seemingly identical signatures. Sequential serial numbers on others suggest purchases made at a single time and place, possible signs that the orders were used to shield straw-man donations.”

LL, who obtained copies of some money orders on his own, found four donations linked to an employee at Thompson’s accounting firm that may be what Orange meant by “suspicious.” The employee, Lee Calhoun, and his wife each wrote Orange a $1,000 check. Four other family members donated the same amount, but used money orders. What makes the donations slightly suspicious is the fact that the writing on the four money orders appears to be similar, if not identical, to the writing on Calhoun’s personal check. (LL’s no handwriting expert, but you can judge for yourself at washingtoncitypaper.com/go/moneyorders.) Additionally, two postal money orders, one for a family member listed with a Silver Spring address and one listed as a D.C. resident, came from the same clerk, at the same post office, on the same day.

Calhoun confirmed that the names in the money orders are family members, but declined to give specifics. But when LL started asking questions, Calhoun said, “I’m busy. Thank you,” and hung up the phone. He did not return a call seeking additional comment. Orange may be feeling chattier these days, but some people still don’t want to talk about Thompson, apparently.

Correction, March 15, 2:20 p.m: This story originally reported that Kweise Mfume Jr. is the sole owner of KMJ Development. However, Mfume says he sold his share in the firm to Jeff Thompson in 2009. The original report was based on DCRA records, which Mfume says he did not file accurately after the transfer. He says he is in the process of re-filing. Due to a reporting error, the story also inaccurately reported the amount of KMJ's political giving. It is $9,500.

Screen grab via C-SPAN

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  • DConfidential

    Can you name the Councilmembers past and present that have received funds from the Thompson money pipeline?

    My understanding is that even Carol Schwartz's 2007 campaign is included amoung Thompson recipients. How deep and how far back does this go? Keep digging.

  • Keith Jarrell

    Ward 4 Muriel Bowser once listed David Wilmot,has her chief fund raiser. He gave her a fund raiser event at his home late last year. She is clearly embedded in this scandal and it is just a matter of time before the other shoe drops.
    David Wilmot and Muriel Bowser are in over their heads with Walmart and other development and particularly since Ward 4 has had so little economic development during Bowser's term as Councilmember.

  • Non Liberal Democrat

    Keith, will this investigation shed light on Muriel being involved in illegal activities? If so, I would love to see her not win or get re-elected again.

    Crestwood Ward 4

  • NE John

    I'm doing an Irish jig three days before St. Patties!

  • NE John

    Let's pray Ron Machen is packing. Real life untouchables.

    Rico! Youngblood! Let's get outta here!

  • BSProof

    Almost everybody has received money from the Thompson network. Gray, Fenty, Williams, every current councilmember (minus Wells), Obama, Clinton, McCain, the DCCC, the RNC, Patrick Mara, Carol Schwartz, Jarvis..... you name it and you can probably connect Thompson to every DC campaign over the past decade. Wells probably did get a check or 2 from Thompson affiliated people or companies, but you'd probably have to dig really deep to find it.

  • gitchafaxstr8

    @NE John: Thought you didn't believe in God.
    So who are you praying to? Beelzebub? If so, I doubt if Ron Machen wants his name mentioned in your blasphemy.

  • LOL

    Regardless of where this ends, great work LL. This really is a clear look at what has happened and you are asking the questions the reader would want to know.

  • OllieSeymore

    The timing is perfect! Right before the primary! Heads will roll on April 3, 2012. Wait and see! Most of the incumbents are going to pay the price!

    After all this investigation drama....I just hope some of these corrupt DC officials pay the price and go to jail!

    All of these other issues in DC (unemployment and homelessness...ect)it is a shame we have to deal with this corruption!

  • Anti-DC

    Hmmmm....I still do not see where Orange is at fault in this ordeal. Honestly if Thompson has a record of donating to various political campaigns, who would 2nd guess that. Thompson got sloppy with his work.

    If the At-Large race has no contributions from Thompson, why is it that Biddle and Shapiro have poor results.

    Those two are not better than Orange, the only thing they can do is ride this wave of bad press and hope it will result a victory.

    I don't think its enough to deem Orange corrupt or unfit to serve the city.....

  • NE John

    Ollie, the only way to remove them from office is jail, sad to say. The people of this town will elect anyone who puts up a lot of signs and frequently mentions jeeeeesus. Jail and jesus, that is the name of this operation. Operation jay-jay. Get on it youngblood!

  • Truth hurts

    Recent media reports are just the tip of the iceberg. The public is getting a sneak peek at what will ultimately be remembered as the the worst political corruption scandal in DC's history. Mark my words.

  • DC 4

    Bowser and Orange should both lose on April 3rd. Why should they get re-elected?

  • Skipper

    Prediction: On April 3, all incumbents will easily win reelection.

    Because that's how DC voters roll.

  • Kevin

    So I'm wondering whether 'Thompson' really did not give any contributions to Wells. It's hard to fathom why he would give to everyone on the Council except one - did he think Wells was beyond pay-to-play? Did he give to Wells but Wells returned them? Interesting...

  • What

    What we really need on a District government level are Council Members (preferably a mayoral canidate)who is self financed.

    If you look back over the decades (although the past year will work nicely too) so much issue and scandal from City Government comes from illegal campaign financing, pay to play and jobs for friends who helped.

    Having a person (who is also ostensibly not a half bad candidate as well) come in and be able to forgo fundraising and dealing with volunteers by being able to spend a few million dollars it takes to run for Mayor in this town would be a breath of fresh air. I mean come on, Gray only amassed 2.7 million dollars for his campaign. There are entire zipcodes in this town where people spend that much every year on family vacations (ok...an exxageration). It would allow someone to completly bypass the stink of corruption that taints every campaign in this town.

  • Petworth Resident

    Amazing how Keith Jerrell can not explain his money and tax problems when he was trying to run for City Council but dropped because he did not want answer the questions from Ward 4 residents. KJ, a big old queen needs to sit down and don't throw stomes when you live in a glass house.

  • http://letschange.org Respected Citizens

    All Councilmembers have received funding support from the Thompson network.

    Still the competition for Evans, Barry, Bowser and Orange remain non threating; however that is different for Alexander with two (2) ideal candidates.

    As this fund-raising saga continues in DC, time remains of the essence, as they ALL includes Ms. Catania and Ms. Graham (the so called good boys and girls -- really) must provide their documents on this federal investigation as well.

    Now let's not forget this info when standing members terms expire and they are up for re-election.

  • 7r3y3r

    LL: It's obvious that the money orders are being used by donors to illegally circumvent the donation limits, but (honest question here), is there any indication that the candidates know/knew of the illegality of the donations and/or do campaigns have a duty to ensure or check on the legality of the donations? In short, who engaged in possibly illegal behavior here: the donors, the candidates, or both?

    Regardless, it seems the only proper course of action for the Council to take is to limit money order donations to the same amount as cash ($25). Otherwise, they're saying, in essence, that they don't think there's a problem with circumventing the campaign finance laws as currently written (which I see as quite problematic and indicative of an answer to my question above regarding their knowledge of this scheme as it was occurring).

  • Non Liberal Democrat

    LOL@Petworth Resident

  • tony

    OK Folks, I have had enough of this! Can someone tell me what the hell is going on here? I think I have a pretty good idea.
    Look folks, what’s being alleged is that a major black campaign donor used his wealth and vast network to provide financial contributions to many of the city's black politicians. Specifically, it’s being suggested that Mr. Thomas devised a scheme to use money orders to make financial contributions well beyond the financial limit. Moreover, it's being suggested that he was motivated to give so generously to these politicians in order to influence them concerning his business interest with the city.

    Again, while this practice may be unfavorable, it's routine. Nearly every big business that gives financial contributions do so with the expectation of receiving favorable treatment from the politicians they supported. Moreover, this notion that this black man may or may not have ultilized a system to skirt city finance laws is moot. If, in fact, Mr. Thompson took advantage of a loophole in the law which allowed him to strengthen his relationship with the movers and shakers in this city then he can count himself amongst the tens of thousands of other business interest who engage in the very same practice.
    Thus, it begs the question of why is Mr. Thompson being singled out. Surely, one is not to suggest that he created the wheel in respect to this matter. Surely, one can reasonablely conjecture that Mr. Thompson alleged practice is very routine and well practiced. Again, why Mr. Thompson?
    If the truth be told, Mr. Thompson is being targeted because some people in this city want to diminish black political influence in this city. And what better way than to allege that the city’s black leaders are dishonest and unethical for having a relationship with a well successful black businessman who is being dragged through the mud for having the nerve to believe that he could play “THE WHITE MAN” game.
    In other words, Nxgger stay in your place!

  • drez

    He's the single largest contributor in DC elections
    He contributed to both white and black candidates.
    He's alleged to have laundered his own contributions in order to exceed contribution limits by falsifying documents to obscure the source of those funds.
    None of the above have anything to do with race.

  • Rob

    Thank you Tony. We all know that it's open season on black elected officials and high ranking black officials in the District government. It's part of the "cleansing" process (and I don't mean cleansing DC of corruption) initiated by the previous mayor and his cronies. While we all desire a city government free of corruption, this selective obsession with investigating all things black is starting to rile many of us in the wrong way.

  • skinsfan83

    Again, this seems like a problem that Thompson himself has made. Not at the expense of candidates. If there incumbents and challengers that have received from his fundraising efforts, than it is Thompson who is wrong.

    Mendelson, Cheh, Catania have all received contributions from Thompson

    THEY HAVE RECEIVED SUBPOENAS, and yet VO has not but you could bet that in Vegas for all the attention he is getting

    Point Blank: Biddle & Shapiro cant touch Orange, nor can they out fundraise him. They are mad they have no clout and are trying to make they claim by crying about Orange

    Orange wins....the End

  • NE John

    Ain't nothing as unforgettable as those metal bars slamming behind you.

  • gitchafaxstr8

    @NE John: So that explains your animosity toward almost everybody that has had a whiff of the Sweet Smell Of Success.

    The only way you would know about that unforgettable sound is if you've had personal experience. Must be nice to be on the outside hoping everybody else will have a chance to experience that unforgettable slam.