Former At-Large Councilmember Vincent Bernard Orange Sr.
Former At-Large Councilmember Vincent Bernard Orange Sr. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

Ward 2 voters’ absolute rejection of the business-friendly and ethically compromised Jack Evans in his bid to reclaim his seat last week apparently has not deterred two other scandal-tainted pols from exploring runs of their own.

LL has learned that former at-large councilmembers Vincent Bernard Orange Sr. and Michael A. Brown are considering running for the citywide seat that At-Large Councilmember David Grosso is vacating. They would enter a field already too large to legally gather in one place at the same time according to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s coronavirus orders. 

That field includes Ed Lazere, who lost to Chairman Phil Mendelson in 2018, Marcus Goodwin, who also lost in 2018 to At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, and former Grosso staffer Christina Henderson,who the outgoing lawmaker has endorsed.

Brown, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges and was released from federal prison in 2017, declined to comment in January 2019 when City Paper reported that he was toying with the idea of a bid to retake the seat he lost to Grosso in 2012. Brown was caught accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth of bribes in a federal sting operation, and an iconic photo shows him eyeing a silver coffee mug containing $5,000 in rolled up $100 bills.

A screenshot of a recent text message shared with LL indicates that Brown is planning to pick up signature petitions this week. Sources tell LL that Brown believes the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 reversal of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell‘s corruption conviction is a de-facto exoneration for him. Brown did not return a call or email seeking comment.

In other text messages leaked to LL, Orange, the current president of the sinking DC Chamber of Commerce, appears to be testing the waters for a citywide run.

Orange writes in one text that he is “seriously considering running for the open Independent seat on the DC Council,” and indicates he’s considering participating in the District’s public campaign financing program. 

“The rules have been changed to reduce the 3,000 signature requirement to 250 signatures,” Orange writes in the text. “In addition one may receive public financing if 250 people donate $50 to the campaign. There are at least 15 people running. Two of the 15 plus candidates will be declared the winner on November 3, 2020. Considering picking up petitions on Friday, June 12, 2020. Your immediate thoughts on this matter would be greatly appreciated. Vincent Orange ?.” (Emoji included in the original.)

In a second text, Orange lays out his would-be campaign’s platform, which includes various issues related to statehood,  with a dash of coronavirus outrage mixed in.

Orange writes in the text:

“Contemplating building the theme of the Independent campaign designed to capture the number 2 Council seat around this:

DC has paid the cost to freely breathe

1. Freely breathe through Statehood

2. Freely breathe through two DC senators in Congress 

3. Freely breathe through a DC Representative in Congress

4. Freely breathe through full share of COVID-19 State share of funds or $1.25 Billion

5. Freely breathe through paid leave benefits for all DC residents (94K DC residents excluded while 322K nonresidents included)

6. Freely breathe through jurisdiction over all criminal and law enforcement issues in DC

7. Freely breathe through exclusive control over the DC Budget

8. Freely breathe through the introduction, enactment and implementation of DC laws without interference or approval by Congress and/or the President of the United States

9. Freely breathe through the exclusive authority over the DC National Guard

10. Freely breathe the fresh air of Emancipation

1. Breathe Freely

2. Breathing Freely Matters for DC!

Thoughts ????”

Orange did not return a phone call seeking comment. But he did email LL his recent tweet that links to a 2015 speech he gave about D.C. statehood. Orange then followed up via text message with photos of the Statue of Liberty and the sun rising over a body of water. 

In the next message, Orange writes that he “has received requests to consider an independent at large run for the Council,” but did not wish to comment further until he makes a decision. Orange went on to list what he considers his biggest accomplishments as a councilmember, which include passing a $15 minimum wage law, increasing weekly unemployment benefits to $425, reforms to the certified business enterprise program, and establishing Emancipation Day as a holiday in D.C.

While Brown only has a felony bribery charge to explain to potential voters, Orange, who would be trading his job at the Chamber, where he made more than $261,000 in 2018, for one that pays less than $144,000, is facing a remarkable list of potential landmines. LL hardly knows where to begin.

For starters, in addition to his self-bestowed designation as a “hometown hero,” Orange has the honor of becoming the first public official sanctioned by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. The ethics board found that Orange abused his position by intervening in a health inspection of a food wholesaler one of his campaign donors, Sang Oh Choi, owned.

Inspectors ordered the store to close when they found rat poop and other health violations, but Orange worked to keep it open. Orange admitted to breaking the Council’s Code of Conduct and completed ethics training as part of a settlement with the ethics board.

“In the past, this has been acceptable constituent service,” Orange told the Post at the time of the settlement—a statement that sounds strikingly similar to Evans’ explanation for his own ethics violations. “But now you have people looking at it a different way.”

Also like Evans, Orange is familiar with the FBI poking around in his business. Federal investigators subpoenaed records related to Orange’s 2011 campaign for his former at-large seat, in which he accepted $26,000 in money orders linked to infamous campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson. Thompson was a major player in the 2010 shadow campaign to elect Mayor Vince Gray.

In yet another circumstance he shares with Evans, Orange resigned from the Council amid a conflict of interest scandal. Following his loss to At-Large Councilmember Robert White in 2016, but before his term was up, the lame-duck Orange accepted his current position as the Chamber of Commerce’s president. Several councilmembers raised a stink about the obvious conflict of interest for Orange, who as Chamber president would lobby for businesses’ interests, and as chair of the Council’s business committee regulated the city’s business community.

Orange subsequently resigned before his term ended.

Speaking of the Chamber of Commerce, under Orange’s leadership, the pro-business group finds itself fending off a lawsuit from its former attorneys over unpaid bills.

Last July, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the chamber to pay legal fees to Craig Reilly and the law firm London & Meade for advocacy work done in 2016, the Washington Business Journal reported. The court took $79,000 out of the chamber’s bank account, which Chamber attorney Ryan Jones said in court documents “greatly harmed the [chamber’s] business operations.”

“Without those funds, the defendant cannot do business,” Jones wrote in court documents.

About a week later, Orange told WBJthat despite his own attorney’s statements, the Chamber’s financial situation was just fine. He called Jones’ characterization of his group’s finances a “disingenuous exaggeration” and “legalese.”

WBJ reported that under Orange, the chamber lost many major contributors, such as MedStar Health, Skanska, Walmart, and FedEx. Even WBJ abandoned its financial partnership with the Chamber of Commerce. Orange told WBJ that the Chamber is growing. (Though the group’s net assets have increased under Orange, its expenses have also increased, WBJ reported.)

The judge’s decision to seize funds from the Chamber’s bank account is under appeal. The $79,000 remains in a court-controlled fund while the case is pending, according to court records.

Finally, there’s the matter of Orange’s campaign debt. Eight of Orange’s nine previous campaign committees for local office are still active, including his runs for the Ward 5 Council seat in 1998 and 2002, his runs for mayor in 2006 and 2014, his bid for Council chair in 2010, and his three campaigns for an at-large seat, according to the Office of Campaign Finance’s website.

Five of those committees either still have money sitting in the bank or owe significant debts to individuals, vendors, banks, credit card companies, and to Vincent B. Orange himself.

Orange’s 2006 mayoral campaign committee, for example, has $83.68 on hand and a total of $97,500 in outstanding loans. His 2014 mayoral campaign committee has $9,252 on hand and a $5,512 debt to American Express.

Orange’s campaign committee for his run for Council chair has $70,000 in outstanding loans. Some of the loans are from Orange himself, $55,000 of which appear to be loans from the campaign committee to itself, but are backed by Orange. That committee has $1,384 on hand and owes a total of $20,734—$13,711 to Kennedy Communications Inc. and $7,023 to Donna J. Groves, according to OCF records.

Orange’s 2016 re-election campaign committee is carrying $81,734 in unpaid debt, including $40,524 to Kennedy Communications, $6,000 to Robert King & Associates Star Fleet Transportation, $2,688 to Bank of America, $2,000 to CHASE, $4,836 to Donald Dinan (the treasurer for Jack Evans’ recent Council campaign and his legal defense fund), $2,700 to News Channel 8, $2,486 to American Express, $4,500 to Ron Dixon Studio 202, $2,500 to Derrell Simpson for consulting work, $2,000 to Otim Williams for work on public relations, social media, and Orange’s campaign website, and $2,000 to Ed Potillo, who died in 2017.

Orange is personally responsible for all that debt, according to D.C. law, which does not allow him to use funds raised in any future campaigns to repay them. Loans from Orange to his campaign committees can only be repaid up to $25,000, D.C. law says.

Goodwin, one of Orange’s would-be opponents, says “the city doesn’t need more crooks trying to hold public office,” adding that Orange’s potential participation in the public campaign financing program “doesn’t make you immune to being a crook.”

“The fact that Jack Evans can get matching funds from public money is a disgrace,” Goodwin says. “And I think that voters recognize that and clearly rejected his attempt to leverage the new rule to his benefit.”

In a text, Orange writes that he will excuse Goodwin’s “youthfulness and inexperience.”

“As a young person, he should remember ‘no investigation, no right to speak,’” Orange writes. “It’s this type of nonsense that destroys good people. #Black Lives Matter He should run on his record. My record is just as clean as his and anyone else in the race. In fact it may be extremely better. I possess a clean record with law enforcement, BEGA, OCF and a FICO Score of 800.”

Henderson, another of Orange’s would-be opponents, worked for Grosso while Orange was on the Council, and declined to describe her observations of Orange as a legislator and committee chair (Grosso was a member of Orange’s business committee).

“I think all voices are welcome to debate and put forward solutions,” she says. “But the conversations I’ve had with voters over the past month suggests they’re looking for fresh leadership and voices on the Council.”