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In 2010, Kwame Brown’s campaign for D.C. Council chairman was awash in cash. By the end of the general election, the-then at-large councilmember reported a total of $698,767.00 in donations and $690,312.10 in expenses.
All that money worked. Brown went on to win the Democratic primary for chairman against Vincent Orange with 55 percent of the vote, then win the general election with only token opposition from the Statehood Green Party. The only problem—one that wouldn’t come out until late this year—was that much of the campaign’s operation was violating the rules.
The campaign cut $9,560 worth of cash payouts, without any of it documented, according to an Office of Campaign Finance report issued this fall. It paid out two contracts worth $215,294. At least, there were supposed to be contracts—no contracts could be produced when investigators asked for them.
But that’s not all. The campaign took in a whopping $134,282 in donations without enough documentation, with $3,965.10 of expenses never going through the committee’s bank account. Meanwhile, Brown’s brother Che Brown cut $92,260 in checks from the committee, despite not being authorized to handle finances. Reading the OCF report into Brown’s 2010 run, the operation starts to look more like a debit card with a campaign attached to it.
This October, OCF fined Brown’s campaign $45,000. The fine came more than three years after the election—useful for the history books, maybe, but not for Brown’s opponents or anyone who might’ve have been interested in running in the race but was spooked by his war chest.
Still, it would be a steep bill for the former chairman, especially considering that his 2008 at-large campaign was also fined $53,400 by the District’s Board of Elections during the summer for similarly loose finances. Except, as it turns out, Brown won’t pay any of it.
That’s because Brown’s campaign committee doesn’t exist anymore—in fact, it hasn’t for two years. And D.C. laws prevent candidates from being personally held responsible for campaign fines. Even before it was terminated, the committee’s bank account was tapped—so much so that it couldn’t pay back excessive donations flagged by OCF. Brown attorney’s did not respond to a request for comment.
As for criminal penalties, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has said it isn’t interested in pursuing new charges against Brown, who was forced to resign from office last year over bank fraud. Che Brown, who recently finished a prison term for his own bank fraud conviction, is also in the clear.
Not even Dawn Cromer, the treasurer on both Brown campaigns, has suffered repercussions for letting hundreds of thousands of dollars go unaccounted for. Despite demonstrating something less than mastery of financial controls, Cromer now works for the D.C. Council as the director of the Office of Procurement. She didn’t respond to LL’s request for comment.
As the District gets ready for another election cycle, OCF’s lackluster response to Brown’s rampant campaign mismanagement illustrates the sorry state of oversight in town. After two years of the D.C. Council and Mayor Vince Gray mulling ethics reform, many of the city’s watchdogs remain either too late with their punishments or mired in penny-ante investigations.
When OCF investigators aren’t showing up years after a dirty election, they’re throwing their hands up and dropping their pursuits altogether. Consider the agency’s remarkably incurious investigation into repeat Republican At-Large hopeful Pat Mara’s behavior after his 2008 at-large race.
Before Mara’s run in last April’s at-large race, the Washington Post reported that he had signed a contract in 2009 to help a conservative group raise money off of his 2008 campaign donor list. Mara denied any wrongdoing and accused his opponents of dirty campaigning.
It may not have been Watergate, but since the Post alleged that Mara profited personally from a campaign activity, that deal would be a violation of the law. Four days before last April’s election, OCF announced that it was investigating Mara, who went on to finish third.
In his interview with OCF, Mara admitted that he had signed a contract with the group to help them reach potential donors, but denied that the contract involved his donor list. The contract, though, was nowhere to be found. It had, Mara suggested, disappeared.
“His only copy of the contract was apparently removed from an unsecured file at the D.C. Republican Headquarters and he had no means of producing any additional copies of the document,” the report reads. (No word on whether the GOP keeps any dogs on the premises, the better to eat homework.)
Absent the contract that had somehow vanished, the OCF investigation went nowhere and eventually had to be dropped for lack of evidence. Mara, currently the Ward 1 representative on the District’s State Board of Education, didn’t respond to LL’s request for comment.
OCF isn’t the only D.C. gumshoe with a less than stellar record of following through on investigations. Take the Office of the Inspector General, ostensibly charged with discovering waste and fraud in city government. Instead, OIG contents itself with minor investigations, like whether a few Parks and Recreation employees have been filling up their own cars with city-paid gasoline. Inspector General Charles Willoughby, like the Office of Campaign Finance, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Perhaps the agency’s premiere recent investigation of late has been into whether city employees have been abusing handicap placards. They’ve caught a few petty lawbreakers, albeit some of dubious value—one woman was illicitly using her mother’s placard for a while. By the time OIG investigators caught her, she was still using her mother’s card but genuinely injured. LL will let you decide whether that’s a fair use of city money.
Even that small success ended poorly for the agency, though, when the recently formed Board of Ethics and Government Accountability tried to levy actual fines on the parking scofflaws. The relationship between the two watchdogs went well as long as the illicit parkers admitted guilt, but when one city employee fought the charges, BEGA was stymied. Willoughby refused to provide documents about the investigation to the newer agency. OIG’s refusal to share information in future investigations would have left BEGA reproducing the agency’s work with a fraction of the inspector general’s investigators, according to BEGA director Darrin Sobin.
An embarassing subpoena from BEGA to force open OIG’s records was only averted after Willoughby agreed to share documents with BEGA, despite concerns that it threatened OIG’s independence. New legislation is expected to resolve the issue permanently, despite Willoughby’s protests.
There’s good news for OCF, as well. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s campaign finance reform bill, which passed its first vote from the full D.C. Council Tuesday, includes provisions that would allow the enforcement agency to go after candidates to pay off fines. If the language manages to make it through another Council vote, law-breaking candidates would have to face their own financial jeopardy over long-closed campaign committees.
McDuffie tells LL he hopes that new requirements that campaign finance disclosures are published faster on OCF’s website will also help uncover wrongdoing when it could actually matter for an election.
Of course, one District-based oversight group has been performing better: Ron Machen’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. Machen’s office has effectively ferreted out shady campaign donations from the confessed straw donors connected to embattled financier Jeff Thompson and bribe-taking pols like ex-councilmember Michael A. Brown (currently awaiting sentencing).
Still, the District shouldn’t have to rely on Machen to guarantee clean campaigns and governance. Not every misdeed—say, an errant $10,000 in a campaign’s bank account—would justify a federal criminal investigation. But absent more effective local oversight agencies, the District’s only hope for clean campaigns are honest politicians…or, barring that, pols whose mismanaged campaigns don’t matter—because Machen caught them doing something even worse.
Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally misidentified the Office of Campaign Finance as the Office of Campaign Finance Reform.
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Illustration by Carey Jordan