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The silence from Mayor Muriel Bowser and her office about the giant D.C. slumlord Sanford Capital, which Attorney General Karl Racine is suing for gross violations of consumer protections and the city housing code, initially seemed like nothing more than her typical political tone-deafness.
But a review of Bowser’s 2014 mayoral campaign finances may offer a better explanation about why she has avoided using the influence of her office to sanction Sanford. Her campaign accepted $3,000 from the Bethesda-based company during her run for mayor, $1,000 over the legal limit, according to Office of Campaign Finance records.
Officials there say the overage wasn’t flagged because the two contributions—one on Nov. 30, 2013 for $2,000, the other on Nov. 6, 2014—came from two separate street addresses, though the company name was the same. “At the time of the contribution in question, the OCF e-filing system was not programmed to automatically catch a contribution that may have come from the same contributor, but a different address,” OCF public affairs manager Wesley Williams writes in an email. “The system was upgraded in 2015 to make this less of a possibility.”
He adds, “On the face of the report, we would have been unable to label the receipt as an excessive contribution without further inquiry. This would have required the review of the articles of incorporation for each LLC to determine whether the entities were in fact the same.”
Please, allow us. It’s not complicated.
One address was for the company’s Bethesda office. The other address is for the eight-bathroom, 7,956-square-foot, $2.9 million home of Aubrey Carter Nowell, Sanford Capital’s founder and registered agent.
A City Paper investigation recently found that mold, vermin, broken refrigerators and toilets, children and elderly living without heat and air conditioning, and units open to vagrants no matter how many times tenants complain are standard conditions at buildings owned by Sanford, whose D.C. properties represent hundreds of units across the city.
Worse, D.C. taxpayers are subsidizing the Maryland company by the millions. The District’s Department of Human Services says there are 114 households currently living in Sanford properties and receiving rent subsidies from programs that the agency administers. In addition, the D.C. Housing Authority says that at least 225 of its voucher clients are now living in Sanford properties. Estimating conservatively that vouchers average $1,000—some are more, some are less, and they depend on family income, among other factors—Sanford is being paid about $340,000 a month, or $3.7 million a year, by District and federal programs.
Ben Soto, who served as treasurer for Bowser’s campaign and also sits on the board of directors at EagleBank, which has provided at least $46 million in financing to Sanford for its D.C. properties, says he’s unaware of “any excess contributions from Sanford or any other contributor” and notes that a close-out audit of the campaign found no outstanding violations. When City Paper sent him a screen shot last week from an OCF report showing the overage, Soto failed to reply.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising. Soto is the same person who formed Bowser’s political action committee FreshPAC, which received contributions from developers and their partners who received board appointments and who frequently benefited from deals involving city-owned land.