One City, Two Campaigns
The shadow campaign is finally out of the bag.
Ever since nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown started snitching ’bout shenanigans in the 2010 mayoral primary more than a year ago, reporters, the D.C. Council, and the public have been trying to figure out what really happened in Mayor Vince Gray’s victory over Adrian Fenty.
This week, federal prosecutors laid out some of the gory details when a politically connected PR exec, Jeanne Clarke Harris, pleaded guilty to campaign corruption charges.
The facts as the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Harris puts them are not pretty, though some are kind of funny. Details include:
• More than a third of the money spent on Gray’s behalf in 2010 was part of a secret, illegal enterprise funded by Jeff Thompson, a multimillionaire who worried four more years of Fenty would be bad for business.
• Thompson gave Harris more than $650,000 to fund an off-the-books “shadow campaign.” Thompson was the money, Harris was Thompson’s point person, but someone else, Harris said in court, handled the shadow campaign “plan.” She didn’t say who that was.
• On primary day, Sept. 14, 2010, while Gray crisscrossed town in a rented Lincoln Navigator stumping for votes, Thompson wired $125,000 to Harris for the shadow campaign.
• Much of Thompson’s money was spent on everyday campaign materials identical to what the official campaign purchased. If you had a Gray yard sign in front of your house, there’s a chance Thompson paid for it.
• Thompson tried to hide his misdeeds, suggesting Harris, 75, take a five-year trip to Brazil. Five years is the statute of limitations for these types of crimes. She declined.
“In 2010, the mayoral campaign was compromised by backroom deals, secret payments, and a flood of unreported cash,” says U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, who indicated that his work in city politics is far from over.
The disclosures made this week a major turning point in the federal investigation. Gray hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing; on Tuesday, prosecutors didn’t say what, if anything, Gray knew about the shadow campaign.
(Thompson, who has not been charged, is only described as an unnamed co-conspirator in court records, but sources familiar with the investigation confirm his identity. His attorney has declined requests for comment.)
On Wednesday, Gray acknowledged problems in the campaign, but told reporters the public should focus on what he’s done in office. But the mayor is asking voters for saint-like patience if he expects them to go much longer without answers. It’s one thing to claim ignorance that aides were secretly paying off a fringe candidate like Sulaimon Brown; it’s quite another not to know one of the city’s biggest contractors was illegally propping up your campaign.
Complicating matters is the fact that court records show strong links between the official Gray campaign and Thompson’s shadow effort. The shadow campaign bought T-shirts, stickers, and yard signs that often looked just like the official materials, purchased from the same vendors. The feds also say most, “if not all,” of the shadow campaign materials were delivered to Gray’s campaign offices and that official campaign aides coordinated with consultants and contractors hired by the shadow campaign.
Scott Bishop Sr., a longtime political operative who specializes in putting up signs, tells LL he was one of those contractors. Bishop says Harris paid him to put up signs and do other field work for the Gray campaign. Bishop also describes frequent power struggles between Harris and Vernon Hawkins, a close friend of Gray’s who Bishop and other aides say coordinated the shadow campaign.
Bishop recalls being in the middle of one tiff between Hawkins and Harris in which Hawkins insisted that “the candidate,” meaning Gray, was on his side. “Fuck the candidate,” Harris told Bishop, he says. Bishop says Lorraine Green, Gray’s close confidante and campaign chairwoman, also clashed with Hawkins. When Bishop asked whose orders he should follow, Green said not to listen to Hawkins: “Vernon is running his own damn campaign,” Green said, according to Bishop.
Green has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and did not return a request for comment.
Another Gray campaign aide, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, says there were two field organizations. People who worked for the official campaign were always short on supplies; those who didn’t work for the official campaign always seemed flush with rental vans or food (as well as their very own blue T-shirts distinct from the official white ones). Court records say the shadow campaign spent at least $23,600 on catering.
“They had the best of everything, because they had cash,” the aide says.
Court records say Thompson pumped $566,000 into the shadow campaign the week of the primary. According to campaign finance records, Gray had about $437,000 less to spend than Fenty in the final week. But with Thompson’s money, Gray wound up ahead financially.
Despite the flood of details from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. Why did Gray’s elderly campaign treasurer, Betty Brown, get paid more than $100,000, even though sources say she did little actual bookkeeping? What was the financial arrangement with Gray’s campaign driver Mark Long, who wasn’t paid by the campaign for driving but identified himself when making a contribution to another candidate as an employee of one of Harris’ companies? Was the $7.5 million additional payment the Gray administration gave to Thompson’s health insurance company early in its administration legitimate, as a well-respected healthcare agency head swears, or was it linked somehow to the shadow campaign? In court, Harris said that if Fenty had won, Thompson “would be in some serious contractual problems.” His Chartered Health Plan has an annual Medicaid contract with the District for more than $300 million.
There are also uncomfortable questions extending far beyond the Gray campaign. In court records, the feds say that when Thompson threw a fundraiser—and he threw a lot—he would have Harris collect donations from friends and family members, then reimburse them as a way of getting around limits on individual giving. Machen says Harris’ straw-donor schemes date back to 2001. Campaign finance records suggest almost every sitting councilmember and every mayor since then could have benefited from that illegal scheme, including new D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (who would be mayor if Gray leaves office early).
Maybe the most frightening question of all is: What did they know?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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