Khalil Thompson was going for a treble.
The low-key campaign operative, who worked in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration as recently as this summer, offered his now-infamous nominating circulation gathering services to three candidates during this election cycle. Candidates had to collect 3,000 signatures from registered voters to make the November general election ballot.
Thompson has been a minor character in the world of D.C. politics, but his role in the premature end of two campaigns—and near takedown of a third, thanks to his firm’s inept signature gathering operation—is exceptional. And trying to cash in on three candidates in the same contest surprised political consultants City Paper spoke with, many of whom hadn’t heard of Thompson before news of the fraudulent signature gathering fiasco.
After realizing that hundreds of the signatures Thompson’s firm turned in were invalid, independent at-large Council candidate Rustin Lewis made the ballot this fall thanks to his own petition circulating with volunteers.
The same can’t be said for S. Kathryn Allen, whowas booted from the ballot after the Board of Elections ruled that thousands of the signatures purportedly collected by Thompson’s outfit either contained errors or were fake.
A second candidate burned by Thompson, Traci Hughes, is still dealing with the fallout. The former director of the D.C. Office of Open Government, Hughes launched her bid in July after claiming the Bowser administration ousted her over her tough oversight of city commissions. Hughes dropped out of the race after discovering that most of the 1,100 signatures collected by Thompson, who charged $1 per signature, were fraudulent.
Thompson still wants his money, Hughes says—at least on paper. He filed an invoice in August for $1,100 for the signature collection efforts, a still outstanding charge that means Hughes can’t formally close her campaign account with the Office of Campaign Finance. She says Thompson hasn’t responded to her emails. “I don’t have any intention of paying it,” she says. (Her October 10 campaign finance filing lists an expenditure of $1,100 for Thompson’s group, Strategies for Change, but Hughes says the campaign has not actually paid the amount, calling it an “expenditure of the campaign that’s in dispute.”)
When reached by phone, Thompson only said on the record, “I don’t have a direct comment.”
Most candidates pay consultants to develop a campaign strategy, but generally assemble a team of volunteers for signature gathering, which can take months but comes with the benefit of developing a loyal team.
Beyond signature gathering, former clients say Thompson did canvassing work for campaigns, going door-to-door and handing out literature. Thompson or his firm has made about $65,000 since 2013, when he appears to have first worked in D.C. for the mayoral campaign of Reta Jo Lewis, according to campaign expenditure reports from the Office of Campaign Finance. His largest single payout came in 2016, when Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd’s reelection campaign paid Thompson’s firm $16,500. In this year’s Democratic primary, the at-large campaign of Marcus Goodwin paid Strategies for Change $12,000.
Goodwin says Thompson’s firm did canvassing work, not signature gathering. Robert White’s at-large bid in 2016 paid Strategies for Change $3,450 for “consultant” work, according to campaign finance filings. It’s unclear how much experience Thompson had with signature gathering before this year, and many past campaigns have only enlisted him for canvassing.
Rustin Lewis, who made the at-large ballot, employed Thompson for canvassing work this year, then over the summer, inquired if Thompson’s canvassers could also collect signatures while knocking on doors.
Thompson said that was a separate service, coming at a fee of $2.50 per signature, more than what he was charging Hughes. Lewis agreed, but told Thompson he would only pay for the work after verifying the signatures.
Thompson delivered 900 signatures in late June. Lewis handed the petitions to a consultant working for the campaign. A week later—after many hours spent at the D.C. Board of Elections checking the signatures with voter registration files—the results were in: Most signatures were fake.
“For us, it was an issue of being ethical early on,” Lewis says. The campaign ended their work with the firm in the second week of July, Lewis recalls. He made the ballot after collecting signatures with volunteers, with much of the work done outside of the Department of Motor Vehicles Inspection Station.
A former Ward 4 community liaison for Bowser, Thompson also worked for the District Department of Transportation and most recently the Department of General Services, where he had a $94,000 salary and a hire date of January, 2015. His name appears on a June 30, 2018 list of D.C. government employees, but not on the September 30 list.
Hughes says several correspondences with Thompson happened while he was potentially on the clock at DGS. Multiple political operatives, who agreed to speak anonymously, found it odd that a District government employee was running a political campaign business on the side.
Thompson’s wide range of campaign clients impressed others. “This guy was literally hustling people left and right,” says a Green Team insider.
Another operative who has managed campaigns before says candidates are to blame for paying for signatures. “If you paid for all your signatures you don’t deserve an award or pats on the back for not turning them in. You were lazy,” says the operative. Former Mayor Anthony Williams was denied ballot access after fraudulent nominating signatures were discovered during his 2002 re-election campaign, forcing him to run as a write-in candidate. The episode served as a cautionary tale for pols to not bungle the most fundamental job in campaigning.
Hughes says another political consulting firm, DP Strategies, referred her to Thompson’s signature collecting services. Co-founded by Josh Brown, a former Wilson Building staffer who managed independent Dionne Reeder’s at-large campaign until this summer, DP Strategies helped Hughes launch a campaign website.
Hughes wishes that Brown had told her more about Thompson, particularly after Hughes’ contentious exit from the Bowser administration.
“I just don’t think it would have been prudent to knowingly ask someone to collect signatures for my campaign who seems to have been loyal to the same administration I was criticizing,” she says. “That just seems fraught with all kinds of error and fraud.”