City Paper is not for tourists
Reporters can be an annoying bunch,and the Wilson Building press corps is no different. LL and his colleagues pester and hector Mayor Vince Gray at every turn for answers about the allegedly vast illegal shadow campaign federal prosecutors say helped him beat Adrian Fenty in the 2010 election, to no avail. Wanna know what Gray knew and when he knew it? Tough. The mayor just ain’t talking, no matter how many times he’s asked, on orders from his lawyer Robert Bennett.
But Gray isn’t the only person facing thorny questions. Give the scope of the alleged illegality, the cadre of campaign workers and volunteers who spent countless hours during the summer of 2010 working to get Gray elected have some explaining to do, too.
After all, there seems to have been a lot of illegal stuff flying around. Last month, political operative Jeanne Clarke Harris pleaded guilty to helping funnel more than $650,000 from one of the city’s biggest health care contractors into the alleged shadow effort. In court records, the feds detail how Harris allegedly spent $128,000 of contractor Jeff Thompson’s fortune on signs, T-shirts, and stickers with “logos, graphics, and designs identical to those used by [Gray’s] campaign, which were purchased from the same vendors as materials purchased by the campaign.”
Harris also spent more than $200,000 hiring outside consultants, canvassers, and drivers, court records say, and then “tens of thousands” more on hotels and rental vans to accommodate the small army.
But despite all this alleged illegal campaign activity, a large number of Gray campaign aides, many of them near the top of the food chain, swear they never had a clue. Interviews with nearly a dozen former campaign staffers elicit, for the most part, a variation of the same response: We didn’t see nuthin’. (This group, it should be noted, doesn’t include some key top aides, like campaign chairwoman Lorraine Green and campaign finance director Reuben Charles, who didn’t return calls seeking comment.)
Several aides who spent a great deal of time at the campaign’s headquarters say the field operation, which would have been most likely to witness any shadow campaign efforts, was sealed off from the rest of the organization. The campaign rented a separate space for field next to the official headquarters on 6th Street NW near New York Avenue. There was little to no interaction between the two operations, aides say.
That next-door space was the domain of Lloyd Jordan, the campaign’s attorney, several high-level aides say. About a month before the primary, Gray personally tasked Jordan with taking over a faltering field campaign from David Dzidzienyo, a former union official, aides say. (Jordan says those aides are overstating his role. He says he was primarily the campaign’s attorney who took over “some operational management.”)
But while aides say they didn’t see anything at HQ, neither did several field operatives.
“All I saw was just normal, everyday campaign stuff,” says Ed Potillo, a Gray campaign coordinator in Ward 7. (The alleged shadow campaign’s efforts focused mostly east of the Anacostia River, according to people familiar with the investigation.)
“It was a shock like I can’t imagine,” says Juanita Britton, who coordinated volunteers for the Gray campaign and was frequently out at campaign events, about Harris’ guilty plea and the ensuing details.
Not all field operatives say they were in the dark. But those who saw something and are willing to say something are few and far between. Bernadette Tolson, a Ward 8 coordinator for the campaign, recently told the Washington Times there was both awareness and resentment among Gray supporters about paid workers. “We knew there was another campaign,” Tolson told the paper. “We could see it, and these people were being paid.”
Another aide tells LL shadow campaign workers were well stocked with vans, food, and special blue T-shirts that were off-limits to regular volunteers. Indeed, at some point during the summer, a crop of blue T-shirts with slightly different fonts from the official white shirts showed up. Some aides say they were told the campaign’s Ward 8 team printed the shirts. But Phil Pannell, who was active in Gray’s Ward 8 efforts, says supporters didn’t have the money to print their own T-shirts. Pannell says the Ward 8 group’s lack of money was a constant gripe; he threw a few fundraisers for Gray at Georgina’s, the bar formerly known as Player’s, to help. In any event, court records show Harris and crew paid more than $32,000 for 6,500 T-shirts.
Those field organizers who say they didn’t see any shadow campaign did, however, see a lot of Vernon Hawkins, a longtime friend of the mayor’s who LL and other media outlets have reported played a leading role in organizing the alleged underground setup. Hawkins, who has not spoken to the media and was not available for comment, was often at the ward organizers’ regular meetings held at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees public workers union headquarters on Kalorama Road NW.
Britton says Hawkins gave advice at some of the meetings about how to organize and motivate campaign volunteers. Ward 1 coordinator Lillian Perdomo says she wasn’t sure what Hawkins’ role was: “I know he was often around.” Another ward organizer says she was specifically told by Jordan “not to talk” to Hawkins.
In an interview with LL, Jordan says he might have told coordinators not to take cues from Hawkins because he had “separated” himself from the campaign.
Jordan has a vastly different take on the shadow campaign than federal prosecutors: He says there was no shadow campaign, only an independent expenditure that might have failed to file its campaign finance paperwork.
Jordan says he was “absolutely” aware that there were several independent campaigns supporting Gray, including those financed by public sector unions and one financed largely by developer Don Peebles, but that the official campaign had no responsibility to make sure any of them were following disclosure laws.
“I don’t think anything was hidden whatsoever,” Jordan says. He says he assumed that Peebles, who is close friends with Gray’s campaign chairwoman Lorraine Green, was financing activities the feds say were part of a shadow campaign.
Campaign records show that Peeble’s group, called the Coalition for a Better District of Columbia, focused its efforts entirely on a $100,000 mailer attacking Fenty. In a statement to LL, Peebles says the coalition acted in “complete transparency” and filed all its necessary paperwork.
Jordan says he’s annoyed with all the “Monday morning quarterbacking” that’s occurring two years after what was a very hectic and chaotic campaign. The aides who swear they were in the dark about the shadow campaign similarly describe the Gray outfit as a short-lived, disorganized mess, one where it was often unclear who was in charge.
So if the feds are right, and there was a shadow campaign, the world of people who knew about it was a very small one indeed.