Loose Lips

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.

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  • Golden Home Rule

    Gray? Machen can't seem to even get the goods on "Taxi Cash" "AIDS Grift" Graham whose COS was caught red handed with paper bags filled with cash, which Graham knew about, in the council office. I am beginning to believe those that think Ron Machen is some kind of twisted racist.

    Earth to Machen! Arrest Jim Graham!

  • KeepIt100

    Machen is quickly becoming yesterdays stale news.

  • noodlez

    A SILLYMON BROWN MENTIONING!
    YOU CAN ALWAYS COUNT ON BROTHER SEWERMAN TO RELAPSE BACK TO HIS 2011 SELF.

    COULD IT BE THAT MAYOR GRAY IS ACTUALLY TELLING THE TRUTH?
    I GUESS THAT IS A BIT FAR FETCHED FOR THE FAGGIE FENTY LOVERS.

    SO BITCH ASS JOE IS DROPPING DIMES ON MACHEN'S THOUGHT PROCESS TO AFFECT NEXT YEARS APRIL PRIMARY BY RUNNING A SHADOW INVESTIGATION? HMMM. THE TIMING THING IS SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT.

    SO WILL BOWSER, WELLS AND EVANS BE ABLE HOLD ON TO THEIR COUNCIL SEATS, WHEN MAYOR GRAY WINS HIS REELECTION, EVEN THOUGH THEY RAN FOR ANOTHER OFFICE? WILL SOMEONE HELP A BROTHER OUT ON THIS QUESTION.

    ". . .federal law enforcement official expressed frustration that more people hadn’t come forward to offer information or help with the federal probe." WHY IS THIS A SURPRISE? EVERYONE KNOWS SNITCHES GET STITCHES. IN THESE FOLKS CASE THEIR POCKETS GET STITCHED!!!

    ONE CITY.

  • Mahdi Leroy J. Thorpe, Jr.

    Vince Gray is moving the city forward and can't be held accountable for things he has no knowledge or control over.

  • drez

    Gray personally walked into his campaign office the night before the last reporting period prior to the primary with $100K of Thompson's money in his hand.
    No way he didn't know.
    My guess is that there are some people who are very busy going over those Thomas records they just won the right to review.

  • truth hurts

    Can't stand diGenova, but he's right about one thing. No thorough prosecutor, including Machen, would indict the mayor without first knowing what's in the millions of documents the feds seized from Thompson last March. The government was banned from reading them while Thompson's appeals were pending. First, a magistrate denied Thompson's motion to keep the feds from reading them. Then, a trial judge sustained the magistrate's ruling. Finally, the court of appeals affirmed the trial judge -- but not until last month. Now the feds are painstakingly sifting through evidence seized last year.

    Sorry to say, noodlez, there won't be another term for one city -- at least not the kind of term you're hoping for.

  • tony

    How in the hell can anyone justify going after the Mayor in the name of rooting out public corruption and allow Jim Graham to go free. Jim Graham has committed felony acts over and over and over again.

  • Just Curious

    @ Truth Hurts - I've always appreciated your insight and perspective on various D.C. related stories. What are your thoughts on Jim Graham and the likelihood of Machen indicting him for his contract related shenanigans?

  • truth hurts

    I've expressed my thoughts on Graham many times in in these comments. In short, I think he's dishonest, sleazy, and has unlawfully abused his office.

    The feds apparently agree with my assessment. They had him under surveillance and were building a case against him regarding the taxicab bribery scam. Ultimately, they felt there wasn't strong enough evidence to convict.

    With respect to the lottery contract, the feds again are taking a hard look at Graham's (and others) misconduct. Will Machen indict him? It wouldn't surprise me, but I wouldn't put money on it either.

  • Just Curious

    @ Truth Hurts - Thanks! I appreciate your timely and thoughtful reply.

    Maybe the Tony Cheng and Keely Thompson stuff will change the calculus. We will see.

    Thanks again.

  • TryingToBetter

    It makes me proud to know Machen is trying to rid DC of corruption - all you lawyers out there, please let me know whether there is stature of limitation on the prosecution of Former Pres. Bush and Vice Pres. Cheney on their lying and stealing. I think what they did is far worse than a "shadow campaign". Now if you say he (Machen) does not have legal status/standing at that level, certainly wish he would use his "talent" to help but those crooks behind bars. I'm Just Saying.

  • ……?

    Machen is working on several cases. Anybody remember Jesse Jackson Jr.??? Machen always gets his man, and he will get that yellow belly one-city mayor. Patience is a virtue.

  • cminus

    @NOODLEZ, under DC law, you can hold one office while running for another, but you can't run for two offices. So Councilmembers elected in the same year as the Mayor (including Wells) would need to resign to run for Mayor, but those elected in the off-years (including Bowser and Evans) would not.

    It didn't used to be this way. Until fairly recently, it was legal to run for two offices at once, and if a candidate won both there would be a special election for the office they didn't take. This led to a lot of special elections, and Vincent Orange shepherded through a change in the law. (I suggest that this, not the Emancipation Day holiday, is Orange's most consequential contribution to DC). Ironically, the first person to run afoul of this law was... Vincent Orange, when he was the Ward 5 Councilmember. Ward 5 votes for Council in the same year as the Mayor, so Orange had to resign to run for Mayor in 2006, only to get less than 3% of the vote and finish a distant fourth, behind Fenty, Cropp, and Marie Johns.

  • truth hurts

    How soon we forget.
    In 2006, Kathy Patterson (ward 3) gave up her seat to run for council chair. Gray (ward 7) later entered the council chair race, but he didn't have to give up his seat because he wasn't up for reelection. Gray defeated Patterson in the primary, and the council lost perhaps its best member in recent memory. Had Gray lost, he would've kept the ward 7 seat.

  • noodlez

    @MINUS-SO "ANOTHER ROUND FOR ER'BODY" IS THE ONLY ONE PUTTING SOMETHING ON THE LINE? INTERESTING???

  • cminus

    @truth hurts, Orange resigned to run for Mayor the same year that Patterson did so to run for Chair and IIRC he declared earlier than Patterson, so he edges her out for the first person affected by the change in law.

    I've sometimes thought we should change the terms for the Mayor and Chair to six years, so that every councilmember would alternate between one election where they'd need to resign to run for higher office and one where they wouldn't. Would it really be so bad to have Jack Evans flirting with a risk-free run for Mayor every eight years, instead of every four?

  • truth hurts

    I'd prefer to have the council members terms reduced to two years like congressional reps. Then they'd all be in the same situation.

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