The Two-Year Itch
Last July, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen held a news conference to describe an “expansive,” “sophisticated,” and “well-financed conspiracy” to put Mayor Vince Gray into office.
The remarks came just hours after Jeanne Clarke Harris, a septuagenarian public relations professional, had pleaded guilty for her supporting role in financing what Machen called an illegal “shadow campaign.” In court, Harris had admitted to helping route more than $650,000 from an unnamed co-conspirator into Gray’s campaign activities and routing tens of thousands more to campaigns for Gray and several federal candidates as part of an illegal straw-donor scheme. People familiar with the investigation say Jeff Thompson, a one-time major city contractor and campaign donor, is the unnamed co-conspirator. (He has not been charged with anything.)
Machen indicated that there were others involved in the scheme, saying there had been “coordination” between the shadow effort and Gray’s public campaign. Machen advised potential wrongdoers to come forward and confess their sins before the feds caught up to them.
“The truth is going to come out in the end,” Machen said, pledging to “hold everyone who played a role in deceiving the voters in 2010 accountable for their actions.”
Harris was the third person to plead guilty to federal charges stemming from the investigation into Gray’s campaign, after two Gray campaign aides—Howard Brooks and Thomas Gore—pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about illegal payments to nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown. Once Machen finished thundering, three councilmembers called for Gray to resign; Wilson Building wags started handicapping candidates for a special election should Gray leave office early. Last summer and fall, a new batch of rumors would swirl about forthcoming indictments every few weeks.
Then in October, a picture of a stern-looking Machen with his sleeves rolled up appeared in a Washingtonian profile that had the city’s top prosecutor promising that “there will be consequences” for city officials who violate the public’s trust. The headline: “U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen: Vince Gray’s Worst Nightmare.”
But if Machen is keeping Gray up at night these days, it’s awfully hard to tell.
This month marks eight months after Harris’ guilty plea—and two years after the federal investigation into Gray began—without any other indictments or plea deals. In the chess match between the feds and Gray, Machen has so far only been able to capture a few of the mayor’s pawns.
Whether that’s due to Machen’s investigation being fatally stalled or because these sort of things just take forever isn’t clear. But the days of the city’s political class wondering whether a special election is imminent are long gone. Instead, there’s a sense of resignation at the Wilson Building that the federal investigation could have several years remaining, much like the multiyear investigations into former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson and former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. (Though that may be only slight comfort for Gray: Johnson’s in prison and Nagin’s been indicted)
“You don’t hear anything about anything, so you wonder: Are they doing anything?” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who has said he’s going to run for mayor. “Life just goes on.”
Machen’s spokesman says only that the U.S. Attorney’s Office “is continuing to work” and can’t get into any details because of an “ongoing investigation.”
So with prosecutors staying mum, the primary political focus at the moment is on next year’s Democratic primary and whether Gray will run. Besides Evans, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser is set to announce her candidacy on Saturday, and Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells has launched an exploratory campaign. Former City Administrator Robert Bobb has also hinted that he might run.
Gray’s been coy about his future plans, but several of his close aides think it’s likely he’s going to seek re-election.
“Nothing has moved the dial, nothing has changed. Why would you not?” says one senior aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about the decision. (Of course, a Gray administration benefits from people thinking he might run again. If he said he wouldn’t, he’d be a lame duck with half a term to go.)
A Washington Post poll conducted in July 2012, shortly after Harris’ plea, found that a majority of District residents thought Gray should resign. But months of scandal-free news, coupled with the District’s ongoing economic boom, may have boosted Gray’s numbers to a more workable position, particularly against candidates from the D.C. Council who have low citywide name recognition. Catch Gray at any of the innumerable public events he attends each week, and you’ll see a man relaxed, at ease, and obviously enjoying his role as the city’s top cheerleader.
“He’s everywhere. He’s by far the most accessible mayor we’ve ever had,” says Phil Pannell, a longtime Ward 8 community activist and Gray supporter. “He will attend the opening of a door, and people like that.”
The other key players in the Gray campaign fiasco also appear to be moving on with their lives. Vernon Hawkins, a close associate of Gray’s who several campaign sources say ran the “shadow campaign,” attended Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s re-election victory party in November. The only legal problem he’s had since the federal investigation launched is a civil suit from Enterprise Rent-a-Car for $12,000 in unpaid bills, which court records show Hawkins settled in January with an agreement to make $300 monthly payments until the debt is paid off. Hawkins tells LL his high rental car tab was for “personal” use and declined to discuss anything related to the Gray campaign.
Lorraine Green, the chairwoman of Gray’s campaign, has been identified by both LL and the Post as the “Person A” in court records who knew about payments to Brown. Green said publicly she had nothing to do with any payments to Brown and said the same under oath to the D.C. Council. She’s not been charged with any crime, and her lawyer has said he does not expect her to be. A few months ago, Green moved to Miami, which she told LL had long been her plans for retirement. She did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Brown, who kicked the entire federal investigation off shortly after he was fired from a $110,000-a-year job in the Gray administration by going public with the payments he’d received from the campaign, has largely been out of the spotlight since his sunglass-wearing star turn at a June 2011 D.C. Council hearing on the administration’s early hiring practices. But Brown did recently contact local news website DCist.com to complain that the site’s previous stories about him had been deleted, according to DCist editor Martin Austermuhle. The stories had not been deleted, and Brown, who blames LL for getting him fired in the first place, did not return emails seeking comment.
The person who appears to have been most affected by the federal investigation (other than those who have pleaded guilty) is Thompson, who has sold his share of the accounting firm he founded and is in the process of losing the large Medicaid contracting company he’s owned for more than a decade. Once nicknamed the “governor” because of the behind-the-scenes political power he wielded through his massive campaign contributions, Thompson is now persona non grata among D.C. politicos, even though the feds haven’t charged him. (His attorney did not return a request for comment.)
Federal agents raided Thompson’s home and office last March and seized 60 boxes and 20 million pages worth of documents, according to court records. Legal wrangling between Thompson’s lawyer and the U.S. Attorney’s Office ended up in an appeals court, which only ruled earlier this month that the feds could begin looking through the records.
It remains to be seen whether there’s anything in those records that will alter the course of the investigation into Gray. But just combing through that many documents could take months, says Joe diGenova, a former U.S. Attorney for the District. He says it’s possible the federal investigation won’t be concluded until after next April’s primary—and anyone who has complaints about the length of the probe should take it up with Thompson.
“The reason it’s taking so long is because the mayor’s close personal friend is delaying by litigation, and there’s no other reason,” diGenova says.
There might be more to it than that. One person who recently met with federal investigators to discuss matters related to the Gray investigation (and asked not to be identified talking about sensitive legal issues) said a federal law enforcement official expressed frustration that more people hadn’t come forward to offer information or help with the federal probe.
Maybe they didn’t watch Machen’s news conference.