Loose Lips

Now That Jeff Thompson Is Down, Who’s Next?

The mastermind behind five years of illicit District campaigning headed to the federal courthouse Monday to show his work.

And what a job he’d done—Jeff Thompson detailed how he spent more than two million dollars on off-the-books campaigns and disguised campaign contributions to politicians across the country in attempts to secure lucrative contracts for his companies. In 2010 alone, Thompson admitted to spending $834,400 on phantom efforts to elect District politicians, including $668,800 to put Vince Gray in the mayor’s office.

On Monday, though, Thompson’s streak came to an end when he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to break election laws. The man whom friends called “the Governor” and Gray called “Uncle Earl” now stood in court mumbling to a judge about his crimes.

Gray says it’s all lies, except for the Uncle Earl part. After three years of investigating, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen has finally caught the man behind it all, but he promises that this is just “the tip of the iceberg.” Here’s what might lie beneath.

Do They Have It on Paper?

Machen has flipped Gray advisor Vernon Hawkins, Thompson crony Jeanne Clarke Harris, and now Thompson himself. Between the three of them, if Gray did anything wrong, they can tell a jury about it. But what jury would believe people so accomplished at lying that they duped a whole city?

Rather than relying on Thompson’s credibility and his obvious interest in the cushy six-month sentence he’s been promised for crimes that could otherwise earn him five years in prison, Machen might try to use documents to prove that Gray knew about the illicit campaign.

Thompson’s statement of offense offers one possible clue where Machen could head. The document describes Gray delivering a one-page, $425,000 shadow-campaign budget to Thompson in an August 2010 meeting at Harris’ apartment. After already putting up more than $100,000 for Gray’s run, Thompson had demanded the meeting with Gray before he paid more. Maybe that meeting will be what secures Thompson his short jail term.

Machen declined to comment Monday on whether investigators have the budget. If Machen doesn’t have that piece of paper, though, he has more waiting for him. After the feds raided Thompson’s house and office in March 2012, they came away with 23 million pages worth of electronic and paper files.

Thompson hired top attorney Brendan V. Sullivan (who didn’t respond to LL’s requests for comment) and tied up the document review with legal challenges. Last October, Sullivan even asked the Supreme Court to protect his client’s records.

As part of the plea deal, Thompson has to drop his attempts to keep those records secret. The U.S. Attorney’s Office should buy some new filing cabinets.

How Fast Will Machen Move?

By putting so much detail in Thompson’s statement of offense, Machen isn’t leaving Gray or anyone else wondering what he’s looking at. And it’s not just Gray's alleged campaign misdeeds—Thompson is described in court papers as footing the bill for a driver and luxury SUV to cart Gray around, $40,000 in various benefits for a “close personal friend” of the mayor, $10,000 in cash for a Gray relative to pay off post-primary campaign expenses, and $10,000 to sway what appears to be the Washington Teacher’s Union election on Gray’s behalf.

But will it matter to Gray supporters? Even after years of Gray friends pleading guilty, the mayor still had 28 percent in a pre–Thompson plea poll—and thanks to a large field of candidates, that was enough to lead the race. Will the voters still loyal to Gray through all the earlier disclosures about the shadow campaign really desert him now? When Gray asked the audience at Tuesday’s State of the District address whether they believed him or Thompson, the crowd, shouting “four more years!” didn’t leave any question.

Machen says he doesn’t operate with a timeline, the publicity-friendly timing of the Thompson deal aside. If he doesn’t make his move before the primary, Gray could win—and early voting for the primary starts on Monday.

Is Vincent Orange the Next Target?

Aside from Gray, At-Large Councilmember and mayoral competitor Vincent Orange is the only currently elected official who matches descriptions in court paper of beneficiaries of Thompson’s criminal conspiracy. Once Machen’s done with Gray, is he coming for a slice of Orange?

Orange, who didn’t respond to LL’s requests for comment but told the Post he didn’t know what Thompson was up to, has looked like one of Uncle Earl’s favorite nephews since 2012, when money orders from Thompson network members to Orange’s 2011 at-large bid were discovered to be obviously fraudulent. Hawkins’ position as a semi-official advisor to Orange’s 2011 campaign didn’t exactly make it look more legitimate.

If Orange’s 2011 bid looked tainted before, though, Thompson’s plea deal leaves no question. Before meeting with Orange at his accounting firm’s office in March of that year, Thompson swore in court, he purchased the consecutive, clumsily forged money orders.

Then, court papers say, Thompson installed a politician whose description matches that of Orange, but who isn’t named in the statement of offense, in an office so he could call donors. In a scene that’s begging to be set to the Benny Hill music, filings say Thompson sat in another office setting up straw donations to disguise his own help for Orange at the same time.

Thompson’s plea deal says Thompson “understood” that Orange knew about the illicit help that totaled $148,146. If LL was kicking in nearly $150,000 and risking a potential prison term, he’d certainly hope that the guy he was doing it for knew about it, too.

But Thompson suggested otherwise in court Monday, describing Orange and former D.C. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp, who matches the description in papers of the beneficiary of a 2006 mayoral shadow campaign, as the only pols he backed who might not have known about his illegal help.

Orange has always said he’s innocent. Maybe he really is.

Will Any Candidates Drop Out?

With Machen clearly gunning for Gray and Gray showing no sign of stepping down, the District faces at least the possibility of a Democratic primary winner being indicted by the feds after he’s nominated. With early voting starting on Monday, Gray’s many rivals may wonder whether they should drop out to stop that from happening.

The most obvious candidates to step aside look like Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who had 12 and 13 percent of the vote, respectively, in a poll conducted prior to the Thompson plea. That could make them spoilers for Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser’s bid, which has pulled out ahead of her rivals and is almost within the margin of error of Gray. Nearly three out of every four Democrats polled recently wants someone besides Gray to represent the party; could that percentage weigh heavier on Wells and Evans than their own support does?

Probably not. It’s hard to imagine Evans and Wells overcoming their enmity with Bowser and their loyalty to their own backers. Wells has another reason not to quit: As the only elected official in the race who never took Thompson network money, he’s finally been proven right.

Their campaigns aren’t interested in LL’s scenario. Evans spokesman Jermaine House tells LL that Evans won’t be dropping out of the race since he plans to win it, while Wells campaign manager Chebon Marshall doubts his boss’s votes would go to someone with Bowser’s “thin record” or Evans, “the corporate candidate from Wall Street.”

No one seems more concerned about the effects on the city’s reputation of having an alleged crook in the mayoral suite than Evans, who’s spent years polishing the city’s bond rating as head of the Council’s finance committee. In a statement Monday, Evans told Gray to “do what’s in the best interest of the city” if he’s charged. If Gray decides not to take his advice, though, Wells and Evans may have to consider what’s in the city’s best interest themselves.

What Does This Mean for November?

With Thompson’s plea deal just hours old Monday night, independent At-Large Councilmember David Catania decided to make his own mayoral run official. Catania, who launched a mayoral exploratory committee last year, likely watched Thompson’s plea news with more glee than most: His unlikely path to victory was finally becoming clear.

Nothing about the District’s 41-year-old history under Home Rule suggests that Catania will become mayor: He’s white, he’s gay, and he was a Republican until 2004. And the city’s Democrats still make up three quarters of registered voters. But he’s gained enough city-wide support to fend off challengers for his seat for 17 years, and he can make a play for East of the river voters for his attempts to save the troubled nearby United Medical Center.

Best of all for Catania, though, Gray has a good chance of winning the mayoral primary if he can hold back his Democratic rivals. If only Gray could find another uncle.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • GoldCoastKid

    None of them will drop out. Ha. Never. Politicians are egomaniacs.
    Catania has the floor. Lets see what he can do.

    Nice piece Sommer. Nicely explained.

  • orange is the new gray area


    vincent orange


    jeff thompson's donor list


    make it look legit?

  • drez

    Muriel FTW.

  • DCShadyBoots

    (Snicker) @ Muriel.

  • Chuck

    It like a drug dealer (Jeffrey Thompson PAC) telling on the buyers (Politicians).

    The Government cut a bad deal!

    Unless, the Government wanted Mayor Gray.

  • Chuck who?

    Not really. Government officials, elected or otherwise, have to be held to a higher standard of ethics than the lay public.

  • make her Holla

    Who's paying the legal fees for Gray?

  • Anonymous,Too

    "...as the only pols he backed who might not have known about his illegal help."

    The operative word here is "might"...

    "Orange has always said he’s innocent. Maybe he really is."

    Semantics again. "Innocent" of what? Having Jeanne Haris' godson Mark Long on his staff since Long retired as Gray's 2010 campaign driver doesn't pass the "appearance of innocence" test.

  • Tight Lips

    @Anonymous - your spending more time trying to prosecute Orange than you are trying to believe Gray didnt do anything DESPITE Thompson clearing Orange's name and admitting that Gray was in on the criminal activity.

    I don't see any articles about LL going to Linda Cropp and asking her how does it feel to get her name cleared!

    Face the facts!

    Kwame Brown was a bad choice over Orange!

    Gray/Bowser/Evans/Wells are bad choices over Orange!


    Muriel Bowser’s Record as Councilmember
    Dorothy Brizill,

    When Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney was preparing an article about Muriel Bowser, he asked me to give him my impression of her. I wrote him a long E-mail and told him that he could quote anything in it. In McCartney’s article, http://www.tinyurl.com/m7vuznp,rr he wrote that I “was one of a half-dozen people I interviewed who have observed Bowser’s work on the council and described it as lackluster. The others spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending a potential mayor.” Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote him.

    Muriel Bowser has been a member of the city council since 2007, when she won a special election to succeed Adrian Fenty as the Ward 4 representative on the council. As a legislator, Muriel doesn’t have an impressive record in the introduction of legislation or the use of the council to solve important public policy issues. The ethics bill, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Establishment and Comprehensive Ethics Reform Amendment Act of 2011, is the one exception. It is an important bill, and it is identified as her signature legislation. But the public was clamoring for ethics reform, she was running for reelection, and she touted her work on the bill as the one example of her legislative accomplishments, The bill was largely pushed through the council by Council Chairman Kwame Brown. In the wake of the “fully loaded SUV” controversy that raised questions about Brown’s own ethical lapses and poor judgment, Brown wanted to use the ethics bill to redefine himself in the eyes of DC voters as an “ethics reformer,” and he used his influence in the council to ensure passage of Bowser’s bill. Because of the messy manner in which the bill was drafted, several verbal amendments were made on the council dais, The final text of the bill wasn’t ready for several months after council passage, and no draft text was made available during that time for public comment. Neither Muriel nor her staff consulted with experts or Washington citizens who were most familiar with the ethics issues that have plagued the city government over the years. It should also be noted that, as chair of the Government Operations Committee, Muriel wasn’t able to draft a campaign finance reform bill, although other councilmembers introduced multiple bills on campaign finance in 2011 and 2012. It wasn’t until 2013, when freshman councilmember Kenyon McDuffie became chair of the council’s Government Operations Committee, that a comprehensive campaign finance bill was drafted and adopted by the council.

    Muriel doesn’t work well with her council colleagues. She is not well liked or trusted by them, and many of them consider her a lightweight. Even before councilmembers all started running against each other to be mayor, you couldn’t find another councilmember who would speak well of her.

    Muriel has not demonstrated good judgment in hiring her staff. She has one of the worst staffs on the council. They are not informed, knowledgeable, or even pleasant, and she micromanages them. She insists that her legislative/committee director, Rob Hawkins, keep his office in her suite of offices rather than in the committee office. Her staffers, including her press director, claim never to know about legislative or issue matters, and they must get Bowser’s or her chief of staff’s permission to provide any information. All calls to her committee and staffers must go through her main office receptionist.

    As a Ward 4 councilmember, she provides very poor constituent services, and there are numerous complaints by residents of the ward about not being able to get service or assistance from her office. Her director of constituent services, Brandon Todd, has been working on her campaign full time for several months.

    Regarding education, about three years ago Ward 4 residents were outraged over conditions at Roosevelt and Coolidge High Schools and the slow pace of renovation at the two schools. Coolidge, which should have been the first on the list schools in the District to be renovated, was dropped down to one of the last to be renovated. It was widely believed that funds that were earmarked for Roosevelt and Coolidge were diverted by Mayor Fenty to the renovation of Wilson and Woodson. Ward 4 residents felt that Bowser didn’t fight for school funding in her ward, and more generally that she wasn’t engaged in education issues. In an effort to silence Ward 4 residents who were criticizing her on education, Bowser tried to counter the Ward 4 Council on Education by creating her own entity, which she called the Ward 4 Education Compact; it has not been active or engaged since its creation.

    Economic development in Ward 4, especially on Georgia Avenue, has been a consistent promise by Bowser to Ward 4 residents, but for years there was been little meaningful economic development on the Avenue. Recently, Councilmember Jack Evans, campaigning against Bowser in the mayor’s race, took advantage of this lack of economic development by holding a rally on Georgia Avenue. The one exception has been the building of the Georgia Avenue Walmart. Walmart, of course, has many vocal opponents, especially in the labor movement, but one of Bowser’s early and most prominent financial backers was David Wilmot, who served as the finance chairman for Bowser’s 2011 reelection campaign. Wilmot is a paid lobbyist and consultant to Walmart. After Walmart announced its intention to open a store at the busy intersection of Georgia and Missouri Avenues, Muriel refused to hear or respond to legitimate community concerns about the store, including traffic and its potential impact on other businesses in the area.

    Most observers of District politics and the inner working of the Wilson Building have had unpleasant encounters with Bowser. People compare her personality to Adrian Fenty’s, and say that she is cool, aloof, and mean. She will roll her eyes and openly display disgust at citizens or colleagues with whom she disagrees even when she is on the council dais or at community meetings. She is still working in Fenty’s shadow; there are even rumors that Fenty will return to DC to campaign for her in the final weeks of the campaign, and he is raising funds for her in California. Many unpleasant people who worked for Fenty are now working in Bowser’s council office and campaign.

    A telling example that is often cited regarding Bowser’s personality and how she has discharged her council duties is her treatment of Betty Noel. Noel, a prominent Ward 4 resident, had served with distinction as the District’s Peoples Counsel for eighteen years, representing citizens’ interests with respect to public utilities. When her last six-year term expired, Mayor Fenty refused to reappoint her, and instead, with Bowser’s blessing, nominated Vicky Beasley, an attorney with little experience, to the Peoples Counsel position. Beasley’s nomination, however, was not approved by the council because of opposition from citizens, the Consumer Utility Board, and civic organizations. Bowser took the council’s rejection of Beasley personally, blamed Noel for it, and retaliated against Noel. When in 2011, Mayor Gray nominated Noel to fill a vacant seat on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the District, Bowser immediately announced her opposition. Rather than champion the appointment of a Ward 4 resident to such an important and prestigious commission, Bowser worked tirelessly with PEPCO behind the scenes to defeat Noel. Through procedural maneuvers, Noel’s nomination died in the council’s Public Service and Consumer Affairs Committee on March 15, 2012, in a three to two vote, with Bowser, Alexander, and Mendelson voting against her. To date, the seat to which Noel was appointed on the three-member board has remained vacant.

    Most troubling when assessing her qualifications to be mayor of the District is the fact that she has no meaningful work or management experience. Prior to running for the council to fill Fenty’s Ward 4 seat, she was an employee at the Silver Spring downtown redevelopment corporation, where she was not in management.

    Finally, despite her public image as being “clean,” Bowser has skirted campaign laws and regulations. When she ran for reelection to her Ward 4 council seat in 2012, she initially ran the campaign out of her council office. Joy Holland, her chief of staff, held campaign strategy meetings in Bowser’s front office, and Bowser’s campaign posters and literature were stored in the committee office of Ron Austin, who was then her chief of constituent services. Over the years, she received at least $18,600 in campaign contributions from Jeffrey Thompson and his straw donors.

  • vichild

    I have a question. Will this affect other representatives for other states?

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