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A year ago this month, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen invited reporters into his Judiciary Square offices and laid out the case against then-Mayor Vince Gray. He didn’t actually say Gray’s name at the press conference—despite bringing in a guilty plea from Gray shadow campaign financier Jeff Thompson that day, Machen hadn’t charged the mayor.
Still, it was no mystery who Machen meant when he talked about “Mayoral Candidate A” and his scheme to fund an illegal campaign in 2010. In Machen’s telling, Gray hadn’t just asked for Thompson’s money to campaign against Adrian Fenty: Gray wanted the District contractor to sway a teacher’s union election, renovate a home for one of his friends, and give an unnamed Gray relative $10,000.
Machen promised there was much more to come on Thompson and Gray. “What you learned about today is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Voters decided they didn’t want Gray in office for the next four years as they awaited the reveal of the rest of that iceberg. As Gray’s primary victory party turned into a collective grief session, Gray Chief of Staff Christopher Murphy blamed it on Thompson’s plea and Machen’s awkwardly timed press conference. Since when, Murphy lamented, did we let U.S. attorneys decide elections?
A year later, it looks like Machen’s iceberg has been hit by global warming. Since then, Machen has managed to secure guilty pleas from two former D.C. Council candidates and Gray’s campaign driver. But he hasn’t charged At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange or former D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp—aside from Gray, the most prominent pols implicated by Thompson. Most surprising of all, he hasn’t filed any charges against Gray himself, despite feeling confident enough in his case to nuke the mayor’s re-election campaign last year.
Now, with reputations jeopardized and one election bid sunk, Machen announced Monday that he’s leaving office. See ya, sorry about picking your mayor.
Machen’s exit leaves everyone who bought into his claims about Gray—from the Washington Post editorial board to Mayor Muriel Bowser to LL himself—looking awfully dumb. But it also reveals that Machen wasn’t the scourge of corruption that he made himself out to be.
Machen is a U.S. attorney whose ambition exceeded his abilities, a prosecutor who aimed to clean up the Wilson Building and only somewhat succeeded. With Gray uncharged, even his successes seem less impressive. In the end, Machen’s legacy may be that he treated the people he caught better than the people he never charged.
Machen took office in 2010, but he didn’t start looming over the Wilson Building until 2012, when Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty to blowing city money meant for at-risk kids.
Thomas took real prison time. He’s only scheduled to leave halfway house custody later this month. But three years later, the sentence doesn’t make Machen look so fearsome. Machen and the FBI had the case dug up for them, first by Thomas’ Republican opponent Tim Day, then by D.C.’s Office of the Attorney General.
Maybe the Thomas case got everyone a little too excited about Machen’s potential. Next up was D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown who, like, Thomas, insisted nothing was wrong until Machen dragged him into court and showed otherwise. Brown’s flight from the Wilson Building burnished Machen’s reputation even more: This guy was cleaning house! Later that year, a tough-looking Machen appeared in Washingtonian behind his desk like he was about to leap over it and punch a corrupt councilmember.
That the eventual charges against Brown amounted to just a few months of house arrest didn’t look so bad at the time. But for all of Brown’s alleged misdeeds, including a string of colossally mismanaged campaign accounts that benefited his brother, the best Machen could get on the chairman was a misdemeanor campaign finance violation and a common bank fraud charge already immortalized on The Wire as a last-ditch charge for prosecutors.
Machen’s pals in the FBI were going through Brown’s trash, spooking him with subpoenas then going through his trash again, yet all Machen could get was house arrest. Even the District’s sedate Office of Campaign Finance, not exactly a model of investigative energy, managed to reveal more on the hundreds of thousands of dollars in sketchy accounting behind Brown’s 2010 campaign than Machen did.
Considering how easily Kwame Brown got off, the charges against former Councilmember Michael Brown—an enthusiastic bribe-taker and one of Thompson’s favorite candidates—look like the most impressive part of Machen’s record. For lying to prosecutors and taking money from undercover agents, Brown, who was already out of office when he was charged, received 39 months in prison.
But Thompson himself will face a much lighter sentence. Unlike Gray, Thompson is a bona fide, admitted crook. A year later, it’s easy to forget how staggeringly huge Thompson’s criminal empire was. He admitted to organizing shadow campaigns to help Brown, Gray, Orange, and even Hillary Clinton; he funnelled hundreds of thousands in straw campaign contributions to nearly every councilmember and several federal candidates. Thompson claims to have done personal favors for the mayor and kicked illicit money into a union race.
For all that, his deal with Machen could earn him just six months of house arrest.
“He tried to steal a presidential election, and he’s a free man,” says former Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies.
The future of the charges against Gray isn’t just about what the partners think of Machen at whatever tony law firm he ends up joining. As Machen leaves, he raises the question of whether he timed Thompson’s plea with the primary to punish Gray for a case he couldn’t prove in court—a clear abuse of prosecutorial power.
A D.C. Bar complaint against Machen for the plea deal’s timing is still in progress, according to Brian Lederer, the Gray donor who filed it last year.
Machen’s investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign entered its fourth year this month. Despite racking up convictions from Gray’s friends and Thompson’s associates, there’s no evidence that Machen is closer to Gray than he was last September, when the mayor rejected a plea offer. After Machen announced his resignation this week, Gray attorney Bob Bennett called on the outgoing prosecutor to use the occasion to clear the ex-mayor.
Gray could still be found guilty at some point. He definitely had a suspicious number of friends willing to commit federal crimes that they say benefitted him. And Machen could still charge Gray in his final two weeks. After that, acting U.S. Attorney Vinnie Cohen Jr., who already handled the corruption cases, will continue what Machen describes as an “ongoing” case.
Still, lawyers representing Thompson cronies-turned-federal-cooperators tell LL they haven’t seen any recent action on the case.
Fred Cooke Jr. represents Jeanne Clarke Harris, Thompson’s funnel for shadow campaign money and one of a few people who can place Gray at the alleged meeting where he asked Thompson for more shadow campaign funding. “We’re just waiting like everybody else,” Cooke says.
Ditto Edward MacMahon, who represents Thompson straw donor Lee Calhoun. “We haven’t heard a peep,” MacMahon says.
Join the club. Four years in, the only person who isn’t waiting for the U.S. attorney to finish his case against Gray is Machen himself.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery