Loose Lips

One City, Two Campaigns

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

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

  • wardsixer

    Vince Gray needs to RESIGN NOW!

    Muriel Bowser in 2014! (sorry Tommy)

  • gitchafaxstr8

    Welllll LL. It looks as if you're seeing the real picture at last......WHAT did the others know AND.....WHEN did THEY know it?????

  • “Bring That Ball, Meat!”

    So the choice was between Gray and his flunkies, and Fenty and his flunkies. Now that Gray has crapped out, can it be getting close to the time for Mendo to pull a "Gerald Ford" and rise the position of acting mayor?

  • RealDC

    "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)."

    EVERYBODY NEEDS TO READ THE VERY LAST PARAGRAPH. IT SUMS UP EVERYTHING. This okie dokie crap has been going on in DC before Gray whipped Fenty's a$$ 2010. This is systemic and the WHOLE council is guilty! Fenty got his in 2006. Check the records.

    Gray SHOULD NOT resign!!

  • beatbox

    @RealDC..that is the oldest trick in the book. You make illegal contributions to your candidate and make lessor contributions to other candidates. So if you get caught, you candidate can say "Everyone was taking money from him."

    Bush league.

  • Mary-Austin

    That's what happens when Madea runnin your campaign.
    Gray stayyy lunchin if he think he gonna get away wit dis.

  • RealDC

    @beatbox- Are you a Fenty voter? Get over it. He lost and this "shadow campaign" was irrelevant. So the fact that this "group" of cheats have been doing this crap since 2001 is irrelevant? Now Gray should and must take responsibility for this in his campaign? Wrong. It was wrong in 2001, it was wrong in 2006, It was wrong in 2010, etc. Fenty received over $120K ( on the record) from Thompson. His lapdog Bowser, received over $40K from Thompson. Catania received a sizeable amount. So did Cheh, Orange, Evans etc. NOT ONE SAID NO TO THOMPSON'S MONEY! NOT ONE GAVE IT BACK! Now folks want to hold Gray fully responsible

    Now my questions surround Fenty's $5 million campaign war chest. Where did that money come from? $5 million is an awfully lot for a DC mayoral race???

  • truth hurts

    Integrity? Transparency? Nope.

    Corruption? Cronyism? Yep.

  • shawchica

    I agree. Don't think Gray should take the fall for this. It was wrong but it looks like everyone was doing it during this and past campaigns. So unless we clean out the whole council we aren't solving the problem. This is why we need sstrong and enforceable campaign finance laws.

  • Diane

    I say "Clean house and get rid of the entire city council". All have taken money. There is no respect for our current DC government. All of them should go.

  • Name

    There's too much money spent, for it only to have gone to "Tshirts, signs, and advertisements". Or really even "consultants".

    People got paid to vote, and I'm guessing a LOT of people that aren't strictly eligible to vote did so.

  • capitol hill

    Gray must resign now. And take Orange with him so the Adults can get down to the business of running the city.

  • capitol hill

    @shawchicka we do have strong and enforceable campaign finance laws. Gray broke then, so now he will go to prison.
    Welcome Mayor Mendelson, we cant tell you how long we have been waiting for you.

  • seDCdude

    capital hill

    you are talking LOUD but aint saying SHIT!!

  • John NE

    I hear capitol hill loud and clear, and totally agree.

  • danmac

    the CMs should all review their campaign finances and return any questionable contributions or at least donate them to the affordable housing trust fund.

  • capitol hill

    Please tell me the contract with Thompsons firm will not be renewed.

  • James

    If you resign over this you were never man enough to hold the office. Grow a "pair!". The arrogance of these people to ask you to resign is impressive as well. Man up Mayor and call these hypocrites out!! These newspapers did not support you anyway!!!!

  • RealDC

    Mayor Mendelson, that's funny. With his 5000 shares of Pepco stock, oh I am sure the electric company would love to have Mendelson as Mayor, they will turn the power off once a week in DC and dare anybody to say Boo!

    Mendelson voted against the nomination of Betty Noel to the Public Service Commission but failed to disclose that Pepco is his biggest donor and he holds Pepco stock. Pepco was TOTALLY against the Noel nomination! Well done, Mendo!

    In the words of Jack Evans, "this is the worst council, ever". - You are right Jack

  • Frank Lee Mahdear

    capitol hill, LL has previously reported that Thompson has been trying to sell Chartered Health Care, the health insurance company with the $300 million contract with the city. No takers yet. The Post has reported that the current contract expires in May next year.

  • RealDC

    @ James

    Agree, you are right.

    Gray needs to punch them heifers in the mouth.

    Cowboy up, Vince!

  • Bert

    Mendo announced he got a counsel's opinion on the Pepco stock, that it did not present a conflct. (Many members of Congress also have equity in companies that are directly impacted by legislation.) And it's hard to believe the holding would influence his vote. That said, Mendo should sell the Pepco stock, because appearances do matter.

  • RealDC

    Mendo got council's opinion after he voted. Check the record. He did not disclose the full amount of shares he held, which was over the limit set by the bylaws.

    Perception is reality, sometimes.

  • Ward 4 Voter

    @WardSixer, sorry I wouldn't vote for Miss Muriel. All the D.C. Councilmembers need to go.

  • http://dino-dc.com Dean Gold

    Just a point, Catania instigated a audit that resulted in Thompson handing back 7 million. Grey says I didn't know what was going on and look at how well I govern. A little different! $650K to $16,000 is a little different too.

  • capitol hill

    This situation with Gray seems to be developing much more quickly now. It will be Mayor Mendelson withing 2 weeks and I, for one, can't wait. One City in the rear view mirror lol.

  • longfellow

    This was how Fenty was elected the first time. Now its a problem. The Post and the other powers that be are angry because the people of Washington wanted Fenty out because he was a pompus disrespectful person who did not respect the people who elected him . If it had not been Gray we would have elected some one else any body but Fenty,

  • longfellow

    I would not vote for Muriel she was Fenty's hand picked person for ward 4

  • longfellow

    Do not resign Mr. Gray you only did what Fenty did four years before. I feel you have tried to include all of the people of the city new comers ,old residents and you have treated every one with respect and dignity something Mr. Fenty lacked (mannners).We know wher your are because we see the Mayors car and your not creeping around living a double life.

  • topryder1

    RealDC, you have now put your finger on the the big pappa, and that is Adrian Fenty and the $5 million that was put together by his new found friends in Ward three. Especially those that live close to the VPs residence. Who was financing all of those anti-Gray adds that propped about education reform going down the tubes if Gray was elected? Who did the Willie hrton ads?

  • http://alphaplumbingandgas.co.uk Erica

    Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one
    and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam feedback?
    If so how do you prevent it, any plugin or anything you can suggest?
    I get so much lately it's driving me mad so any assistance is very much appreciated.