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Can’t Vince Gray go on a trip without everything going to hell? The District’s lame-duck mayor was only a few days into his visit to China last week when U.S. Attorney Ron Machen popped up to spoil his lo mein.
Machen’s latest method for needling his longtime target: Mark Long, Gray’s former campaign driver, and now the most recent Gray associate to confess to crimes he committed to help get Gray elected in 2010.
Gray can’t be too put out, though. For three years now, pleas and cooperation deals from the mayor’s pals and alleged benefactors have been a regular feature of District politics. Every couple of months, prosecutors have a new Gray crony ready to admit to crimes.
Still, it’s been 30 months since federal agents raided businessman Jeff Thompson’s office, and a whopping 42 months since 2010 candidate Sulaimon Brown narc’ed on Gray’s campaign staff, setting this whole thing off. Six people who helped Gray’s campaign have pleaded guilty to various charges; in case you’ve lost track, LL figured it was time to take another look at where we are in the investigation.
Who was at the center of the scheme?
The federal investigation has stretched from Thompson’s illicit campaign to help Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Texas Democratic presidential primary to illegal contributions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the District, though, it’s all about Thompson and Gray.
According to court documents filed after Thompson pleaded guilty in March, Gray allegedly met with Thompson in June 2010 after he had entered the mayor’s race against Adrian Fenty. Thompson and associate Jeanne Clarke Harris had already met earlier that year with Gray pal Vernon Hawkins for discussions about what prosecutors call the “shadow” campaign to get the vote out for Gray.
At the June meeting with Thompson, according to Thompson’s sworn testimony, Gray asked him for illegal campaign donations so his campaign could tout how much they had raised. Using money funneled from Thompson through her companies, Harris even went on to rent Gray an SUV for his campaign.
By August, according to Thompson, Hawkins relayed that Gray needed even more money—an additional $400,000. Thompson, according to his guilty plea, demanded that the future mayor make the request in person.
Thompson, Harris, and now Long say Thompson met with Gray in Harris’ apartment, where Gray allegedly gave him a $425,000 budget for get-out-the-vote plans.
Spending that much money, LL likely doesn’t have to point out, violates the District’s prohibition on contributing more than $2,000 to a mayoral candidate.
The bank didn’t run dry after Gray won the primary in September 2010. Thompson testified that he ponied up $10,000 for a “close family member” of Gray to pay off campaign expenses, and even spent $40,000 to benefit a “close personal friend” of Gray’s.
What was in it for Thompson?
Money! As he was funding the shadow campaign for Gray, Thompson owned D.C. Chartered Health Plan, the District’s largest Medicaid contractor.
As long as he could keep the contract, Thompson could continue the financial shell games in which he moved money from Chartered to his other companies with suspicious contracts. There was a lot to go around—at one point, the Medicaid contract was worth $322 million a year. But Fenty appears to have been fed up with Thompson after his attorney general sued Chartered over those mysterious contracts.
Thompson’s attempt to replace Fenty with Gray paid off for at least a little while, according to his guilty plea. After Gray won the election, Thompson allegedly contacted Gray and asked him to hurry up a favorable District legal settlement on Chartered’s behalf.
What does his driver’s guilty plea mean for Gray?
Besides making clear that prosecutors haven’t forgotten about Gray, Long’s guilty plea last week shows someone who claims to have been at some of Gray’s most allegedly damning moments is cooperating with the feds.
Long’s plea claims that he drove the mayor to meetings with Thompson, collected money on his behalf, and took him to an unsuccessful attempt to get second-tier candidate Leo Alexander to drop out of the race with the promise of a government job or money. After that meeting, Long claims that Harris helped the campaign funnel $20,000 meant to be used to sway Alexander out of a campaign account.
More than the new allegations, though, Long’s yet another Gray intimate who has now cut a deal with investigators. He joins Hawkins, who’s similarly had his sentencing put off indefinitely to ensure his cooperation with the feds.
Do we know for sure that “Candidate A” is Gray?
While Gray has never been named in court papers in his campaign workers’ cases, prosecutors say it’s him. They likely would have preferred to keep referring to Gray by his pseudonym, but Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly forced prosecutors to name Gray during Thompson’s plea hearing, saying that Gray’s campaign was integral to Thompson’s plea.
Will prosecutors charge Gray?
Gray hasn’t been charged, and he insisted during his failed re-election campaign earlier this year that he didn’t do anything wrong.
Despite engineering years of shadow campaigns, though, Thompson scored a deal with prosecutors that could give him a sentence of just six months of house arrest. (Which, for comparison, is the same stint prosecutors sought against Michael Brown for lying about just one shadow campaign, though he wound up doing more time for unrelated bribery charges.) That makes LL think Thompson—and his lawyers—have convinced the feds that he can give up Gray or someone even bigger.
Who else did Jeff Thompson help?
While nearly every politician in town received contributions from Thompson’s illegal “straw donor” network, only a handful merited special mention for receiving a combined $1,684,000 in additional help from Thompson.
Besides Gray, according to Thompson’s guilty plea, those recipients include Long, former Ward 1 candidate Jeff Smith, and former at-large candidate Kelvin Robinson, all of whom have pleaded guilty to covering up Thompson’s help.
There’s also Michael Brown, the bribe-taking former councilmember who frequently received Thompson’s money, even taking a payout to leave the 2006 mayoral race to boost Thompson’s preferred candidate, former D.C. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp, who lost to Fenty. Cropp herself supposedly got $280,000 in shadow campaign help from Thompson, although she denies knowledge of the crime.
Besides Gray, At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange is the only current officeholder named as a Thompson shadow campaign recipient. Orange, whose own run for mayor garnered just 2 percent of the vote in last April’s primary, has said he didn’t do anything wrong.
What about the straw donations?
Using a large “straw donor” network that included some of his employees, Thompson has admitted to illegally spreading his contributions across the country and around the District. (When Thompson’s house was raided in 2012, only one of 13 councilmembers hadn’t received some money from Thompson or his donor network.)
Here’s how the plan worked, according to a guilty plea from Lee Calhoun, an employee at Thompson’s old accounting firm who admitted making $160,000 in campaign contributions that actually came from his former boss. Thompson would direct Calhoun to make a contribution with his own money to a candidate. Then, Thompson and the accounting firm’s financial controller would pay Calhoun back with money from the firm to reimburse him for the contributions in a process they called “truing up.”
Then they’d fiddle with Calhoun’s tax forms to cover up the money. That sometimes produced figures that make LL wonder why it took so long for the plan to be revealed. In one year, Calhoun reported being paid a bonus of $321,900—more than double his $125,000 annual salary.
What ever happened to Sulaimon Brown?
It’s a mark of how absolutely sprawling the federal investigation into Gray and Thompson has become that no one talks anymore about Sulaimon Brown—the zany 2010 fringe candidate whose refusal to take his sunglasses off in a Council hearing on Gray administration nepotism made it into Marion Barry’s memoir.
Gray campaign workers admit to paying Brown to keep his campaign going so he could attack Gray’s real opponent, Fenty. After the election, Brown scored a position with the Gray administration until news reports cost him his job and drove him straight to the Washington Post. His scheming with Brown was a dumb idea in 2010, and now that Brown’s allegations helped the feds work their way up to Thompson himself, it looks even worse four years later.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery