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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