Grand Jury Delves Deeper into Campaign Finance Fiasco
First came raids.
Then came subpoenas.
And now, members of the D.C. Council nervously wait to see just how a growing campaign finance scandal will shake out. The situation resembles musical chairs with players scurrying around doing their level best not to be the last one standing when the music stops.
Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, (D-Ward 3), characterized the mood among her peers after several of them received grand jury subpoenas on successive days last week.
"There is a sense that at any moment, something could happen," she said during an interview late Friday. "People are anxious and unsure and they should be."
Cheh said she hasn't received a subpoena but acknowledged that she numbers among those currently serving on the council who were the recipients of Jeffrey Thompson's largesse.
"I read the story about one councilmember not receiving any money from Thompson and I got smug because I thought it was me, but I checked and found out that in December 2009, he sent my treasurer a check for $500 and another check for the same amount from Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio as well."
"Money – lots of it – was paid to evade the campaign finance laws. You have to establish to a magistrate that a crime was committed before he or she will agree to a raid. Thomas's problems started with a raid," she said, referring to disgraced former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr.
As the investigation into the financial dealings between local businessman Jeffrey Thompson, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and members of the D.C. Council widens, speculation is rife about evidence of actual wrongdoing, what if any corruption exists, how deep it goes and who will become ensnared in the web.
Thompson, 57, an accountant, businessman, and prodigious fundraiser and donor to local campaigns, is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office, both of whom seek to determine if he violated any local and federal campaign finance laws. Federal agents also raided the home and offices of Jeanne Clarke Harris, a Thompson associate and PR consultant to the Gray campaign, and carted away records.
The raids and subsequent delivery of subpoenas are an indication of the feds' far-reaching investigation into whether there were financial improprieties during Gray's 2010 election campaign.
Cheh said she gets dispirited and depressed watching the council lurch from one scandal to another.
"When you have the drip, drip, drip of scandal, it weighs on your reputation and your ability to do your job," she said. "We can't keep staying under this cloud. Soon we will have another spectacle in May."
May 3 is the date Thomas is scheduled to be sentenced for stealing $356,000 of public funds.
"The man who I sat beside for four years is going to jail. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that," said Cheh.
Gray, 69, has been questioned incessantly by the media, but has generally limited comment. Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy declined to answer any questions on Friday, March 16 about the latest developments in the case except to say, "... He has run his campaigns with integrity, and can't comment any further because this is an ongoing investigation."
However in a March 7 press conference, Gray stated categorically that he had no knowledge of unlawful activities by his campaign as it relates to cash and money orders. He said he only became aware of any allegations after the campaign. Whatever problems that may have cropped up Gray blames on a lack of oversight caused by a condensed campaign.
Local businessman Leo Alexander said as he watches the scandal unfold, he has little doubt that the feds are using Thompson to bring down Gray.
"I read an article the other day where Gray's campaign workers said he brought $100,000 to them on the final day that they could file campaign contributions," Alexander said. "If that's true, that's just arrogance. I see this as the beginning of the end. People are talking, trying hard to save their [butts] because no one wants to go to jail. Right now, someone is probably telling the feds that Gray's fingerprints and DNA are all over that money and I'm sure he'll be saying, 'I didn't do anything wrong."'
"2012 will go down as the year of the indictment. The feds are doing the same thing they did with Thomas, making a case. They are moving toward the mayor. There will be quite a few people going down. I wouldn't be surprised. It's going to be interesting times, sad times but interesting. And they will be selling lots of papers because bad news sells. We're sitting down and watching."
Alexander, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2010, said the city can do without another black eye.
"We don't need this. We don't need a return to the 1980s with all the problems and scandals. There are too many other issues in the city that elected officials need to be taking care of," he said.
With regard to the Thompson investigation, Alexander said he's not surprised.
"I heard early on that Thompson bankrolled candidates. I even approached him but he told me he was a Fenty man. Thank God, because if not, they'd probably be investigating me now. God was looking out for me," Alexander said laughing.
Lawrence Guyot, a veteran of the Civil Rights and student movements in the 1960s, and who teaches the history of that era, said he regards the entire saga with suspicion.
"I find this absolutely astounding," he said. "If you're going to do a criminal investigation, it's good to start with a crime that has been committed. This is not a serious investigation; its intent is to inhibit this government's operations. It is an issue framed as if it's only about purity. We should have as much concern for having a functioning government as a pure government."
"I'm not interested in donors. They're acting as if it's illegal to simultaneously coordinate contributions. It's not. I don't want this government stymied by discussions of who's the purest in the group. When I go to the polls, I go to elect politicians, not saints."
While not a supporter of Gray, Guyot said he strenuously opposes any effort to either recall the mayor or D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D).
"Race is fundamental to all of this. Look at who are the champions of purity," he said. "There's no decision made in D.C. politics that's not done through the prism of race ... that's why I'm irrevocably opposed to any recall against any politician."
A longtime D.C. resident who knows Thompson well, agrees with Guyot, adding that while Thompson may have made some mistakes, he's acting exactly as others have politically in this country for centuries.
"He is a notable minority businessman and a leader. I give him a lot of respect for coming here as a young man, building a business and helping other minorities," said the man who chose to speak anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. "He's done exactly what the Italians, Irish, Polish and English have been doing for 500 years. When a black man tried to do the same thing that white people have been doing for 300 years, he's targeted."
"There's nothing untoward with what he's doing. What I'm saying, is this [stuff] has been going on in D.C. for years and everyone is doing it. Could Jeff have been discreet? Yes. He made a big mistake. His mistake is that he got too many friends to buy too many money orders back-to-back at one liquor store."
The source said Thompson has hit a raw nerve because this case comes on the heels of ethical lapses and other issues involving several other councilmembers.
"He hit a raw nerve because of Kwame and the others. ... [People] are pissed off that Fenty lost and they're pissed off that these guys are black," he said. "Did Jeff do anything wrong? No."
Thompson is a founding partner and chairman of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates (TCBA), the largest black accounting firm in the country. In addition to his affiliation with the 29-year-old company, Thompson owns and is chairman of D.C. Chartered Health Plan, Inc., which signed a $322 million annual contract with the D.C. government. The company delivers healthcare in the District, particularly to the city's underserved communities. The company, which is part of the District's healthcare alliance, processes claims and handles private medical information for more than 100,000 District residents.
Thompson is regarded as a kingmaker for his major donations to local political campaigns. He has raised and contributed vast sums of money to candidates and elected officials including Gray – who is said to have received a $100,000 donation – and former Mayors Anthony A. Williams and Adrian Fenty. Thompson is purported to have also given money to every member on the D.C. Council, with the exception of Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).
Meanwhile, the council members who have received subpoenas seeking records of all donations from Thompson, his businesses and his associates, say they will comply fully with the federal grand jury request. They are Kwame Brown (D); Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7); Jack Evans (D-Ward 2); and Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large).
Mendelson issued a statement late last week which said in part: "I understand that many others have received subpoenas regarding Mr. Thompson's campaign fundraising. I regret that this has created yet another controversy around City Hall. I believe disclosure is the best course. I am hopeful that the U.S. Attorney's investigation will uncover the facts as quickly as possible."
On Tuesday, March 20, Cheh introduced a bill that would restrict the amount of money an individual can donate to a campaign. This is a way to ensure that there will be no more instances of 26 $1,000 money orders with sequential numbers turning up in a politician's possession. She rues the lack of support from her colleagues, except Wells.
"I'm quite frustrated by the lack of action," she said about past failed legislative efforts. "One week ago, I introduced the campaign finance bill separately. I hope someday it will see the light of day. Twenty-five dollars seems to make sense because it will deter people who want to make mischief."
"Not by itself, but everything going on highlights the need to (enact) campaign reform."
Alexander said he'll believe city officials are serious about corruption when the council ends outside employment.
"They would no longer be able to work at law firms making $500,000 a year to work on behalf of their corporate clients," he explained. "They should be working on behalf of their constituents. We won't get down to solving our problems until we solve the problem of corruption."
"They have not developed an IT corridor, built people's skills, and made them employable, built up the black middle class – they haven't done any of that. We elected people to keep the party going. The people on the council who you expected to work on the city's behalf don't because they are being paid and continue working for their corporate pimps instead of the citizens of the city. This is not racism, it's about economics. If we elected these black politicians to develop us, you can't throw the race card. The onus is on us and the embarrassment is on us."