A powerful political action committee may have paid for a $15,000 poll at the request of the scandal-plagued 2010 campaign of Mayor Vince Gray, an action that could have violated rules limiting campaign contributions or coordination between candidates and campaigns.
According to emails obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, among those involved in the back-and-forth discussion about the poll was a former high-level Gray political consultant named top spokesman for the Democratic National Committee last week.
The emails come to light just as a two-year federal investigation into the efforts by Gray campaign officials to avoid city campaign finance laws accelerates.
On June 12, 2010, Sam Brooks, a senior campaign aide, sought help from David Julyan, a lobbyist who runs BUD’S PAC, an independent political action committee funded largely by local parking garage, real estate and construction interests.
Brooks, in an email to Julyan, said “if we did a Poll, specific to the Mayor’s race it could be *very* helpful” to Gray’s campaign, according to the exchange.
“Just thinking of ways the PAC could help…” he continued. Brooks and Julyan, public records show, started a consulting company in 2009 that had been paid by BUD’S PAC for polling in the past. “Feel free to totally ignore this and not hurt my feelings. … I know it ain’t my PAC, it ain’t my money, but just throwing this out there,” Brooks wrote.
On Aug. 1, Brooks emailed Mo Elleithee, a top communications strategist for the Gray campaign: “Hey man — If you had 3 questions, what would they be?”
Brooks told the Center that by this time, he was no longer a part of the campaign.
Elleithee is a well-known Democratic campaign operative who has worked on several federal campaigns and was named as the DNC’s communications director last week. He’s taking a leave of absence from his political firm, Hilltop Public Solutions.
In an Aug. 2 email, Julyan asked Brooks to call him at his house “to discuss poll.” The email also included suggested questions for the poll. Brooks responded by email, expressing frustration he hadn’t yet heard from the Gray campaign.
“Hey man, I’m *still* waiting for Gray folks to get back to me re: proposed questions,” Brooks wrote to Julyan. “Just waiting for the Gray Qs and will get to you then.”
On Aug. 3, at 2:12 a.m., Elleithee responded to Brooks: “Will get this to you in the morning.”
Five hours later, Brooks wrote to Julyan: “Got an email from the Fenty dude at 232am today saying he’d have it to me this morning. I said he’s got until 9am and then it’s gotta be locked.”
The reference to then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, Gray’s opponent, may have been an error.
The emails obtained by the Center do not contain any questions submitted by Elleithee.
D.C. campaign finance law prohibits independent PACs from coordinating election activity with campaigns, according to Wesley Williams, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign Finance. This includes polling if a poll’s questions “are designed to advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.”
If an outside group, like BUD’S PAC, solicited and used questions suggested by a campaign for a poll and then privately shared the results with the campaign, it could be a form of a campaign contribution, Williams says. He added that the Gray campaign is currently under investigation and he could not comment on any specifics regarding that campaign.
Just agreeing to coordinate expenditures with an independent PAC can be considered a violation of the law, says Don Dinan, an attorney who has represented several D.C. politicians on campaign finance issues.
The poll commissioned by BUD’S PAC was conducted from Aug. 4 through Aug. 9. The 24-question poll contained several questions about potential political liabilities of both Gray and Fenty. It included questions about associates of Fenty who had been the subject of negative media attention. The poll also asked about other city politicians not involved in the mayor’s race.
A small portion of the poll’s results showing Gray in the lead was later leaked to media outlets, though the full poll was never made public.
BUD’S PAC’s campaign finance records show that it paid the company started by Julyan and Brooks $15,000 for a poll on July 30. Julyan told the Center that he did not profit from the poll, that “the cost of the poll was considerably less than “market rate” and included the fee paid to the company that made the calls.”
Contributions from PACs to mayoral candidates are limited to $2,000. There is no mention of any in-kind contribution related to a poll in Gray’s campaign finance filings.
Elleithee, Brooks, and Julyan told the Center they did nothing wrong.
They said there was no coordination between BUD’S PAC and the Gray campaign in crafting the poll’s questions, nor were the results of the poll shared with the campaign. A spokesman for Gray said the mayor “has no knowledge” of the email messages.
Julyan, a lobbyist who Gray appointed to his transition team, says he periodically conducts private polls that are “simply used to keep a pulse on how D.C. voters feel on the issues of the day.”
Elleithee said he does not recall the circumstances surrounding his email exchange with Brooks, but says they could have been related to any number of legitimate campaign activities that Brooks was a part of.
“I wouldn’t have responded to it if I thought it had something to do with an I.E. [independent expenditure],” Elleithee said, adding: “I just don’t recall this conversation.”
Brooks said he also doesn’t remember the contents of the emails, which he says he believes were hacked from his email account for “malicious political motivations.”
Brooks said he left the campaign before August because he thought it was a “lost cause” and that he could better help get Gray elected from the outside.
Internal campaign emails, invoices and interviews with several former Gray campaign officials show that Brooks was very active in the first months of the campaign. He was described in an email by the campaign manager as part of the “Vince-Gray-for-Mayor central office field team” and praised for being “instrumental” in voter ID efforts.
Brooks’ involvement extended through June when he approached Julyan with the idea of BUD’S PAC commissioning a poll to help the mayor.
In a July 6 email, Brooks suggested to two of its fundraisers that they raise money for outside groups rather than the campaign itself.
“It’s literally amateur hour,” Brooks said of the campaign in an email to Joshua Kern and Reuben Charles. “And very candidly: I would simply stop raising money for the campaign until it proves it has a sophisticated budget based on sound strategic assumptions; otherwise, I would direct all money to independent expenditures.”
Brooks currently works for the Gray administration as a $140,000-a-year associate director at the Department of General Services.
Four people with ties to the Gray campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies in connection with the federal investigation. The latest is Vernon Hawkins, one of Gray’s closest associates, who admitted last week his role in running an alleged $650,000 off-the-books “shadow campaign.”
D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson, a one-time donor to BUD’s PAC, has been implicated as the financier, according to sources familiar with the probe. He has not been charged with any crimes nor has Gray.
The mayor has denied any personal wrongdoing and said he was not aware of all that transpired during a chaotic six-and-a-half month campaign that led to his easy victory over Fenty in the September 2010 Democratic primary.
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery