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Mayor Vince Gray usually doesn’t have a hard time coming up with words. His speeches can last hours. His news conferences sometimes seem to drag on forever. But lately, the mayor’s gone silent just when he needs to be talking the most.
Last week, after two top aides from his 2010 mayoral campaign admitted in federal court to making illegal payments to fringe candidate Sulaimon Brown and then lying to the FBI about it, Gray told reporters he had nothing to say about the matter.
“I’m not going to comment on it at this stage. We’ll let this investigation play out, as well as it should, and then we’ll see where we are,” Gray said last Wednesday, the day after his campaign treasurer Thomas Gore admitted to shredding a spiral notebook where he’d kept records of payments to Brown.
On Friday, a day after former aide Howard Brooks admitted he’d ferried payments from the Gray campaign to Brown, Gray was equally tight-lipped at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Rosedale Community Center. At one point during a tour, Gray was so focused on avoiding reporters’ questions that he marched right into an unbuilt part of the rec center. He then realized he was trapped and made an awkward turnaround with his entourage and the press in tow.
“It’s an active construction site,” a security guard unsuccessfully tried to warn the group.
Outside again after that, Gray ignored questions and instead grabbed a football and told LL to “go long.”
“All the way to 19th Street,” Gray said. It did not escape LL’s notice that the mayor wanted him to run several blocks away. (In case you’re wondering, LL did go long, as he was raised to always accept requests to play catch.)
Next up were a few tosses with an enthusiastic woman who yelled: “Me and you, Mayor Gray,” and “You got an arm on you, Mr. Gray.”
Then it was back to ignoring questions. When a TV reporter asked about Brooks’ plea, Gray responded: “Rosedale is a fantastic facility, and I’m glad we opened it today.”
LL tried to get a comment about Lorraine Green, the mayor’s closest friend and campaign chairwoman, who court records suggest knew of the payments to Brown. Instead, Gray mocked LL’s football skills: “Thank you so much for coming out today. We appreciate you being involved in this. If you keep working at it, you might be a good receiver.”
But behind Gray’s attempted jocularity lies a serious problem for Hizzoner: His administration is at its lowest point yet, and he can’t defend himself. The stakes involved in the federal investigation have gotten so high that Gray has to forgo political considerations for legal ones. That means awkward public appearances where Gray and his aides pretends like nothing is wrong will now be par for the course.
“He doesn’t have a choice. He has to shut up,” says Joe diGenova, a former U.S. Attorney for the District. diGenova says any lawyer worth his salt would make sure Gray doesn’t give federal prosecutors any extra ammo to use against him. “Every word that comes out of his mouth is admissible in court.”
Gray’s high-profile attorney, Robert Bennett, says he’s ordered the mayor to keep quiet. But Bennett has declined to say anything about Gore and Brooks. That’s a switch from last year, when Bennett told reporters that he’d conducted his own investigation into l’affaire Sulaimon and found that Gray had done nothing wrong.
The mayor’s current silence also contrasts sharply with how he first handled Brown’s accusations in March 2011. Gray summoned reporters to a Sunday evening news conference the same day the Washington Post ran Brown’s tale of receiving cash envelopes from Gray aides, as well as a promise of a future city job, in return for attacking then-Mayor Adrian Fenty on the campaign trail. Gray said allegations that Brown had received money from his aides were “reprehensible” and called for a “swift and thorough” investigation.
He got half his wish, as federal investigators have been plodding through every inch of the Gray campaign’s doings for more than a year now. There’s been no indication that Gray knew of the payments to Brown or the subsequent cover-up. But Brown claims he did, and at least some of what he alleged last year apparently really happened. Court records also mention other potential problems for Gray, including “excessive” cash donations and at least one case where a straw donor was used to record a $2,000 donation.
And the guilty pleas surrounding the Brown payments may prove to be dwarfed by allegations that deep-pocketed Medicaid contractor Jeff Thompson funded an off-the-books “shadow campaign.” The feds raided Thompson’s house and offices earlier this year. His lawyer declined to comment for this story.
U.S. Attorney Ron Machen has indicated that he’s not done. After Brooks pleaded guilty, Machen issued a statement giving him credit for “owning up to his mistakes and eventually telling the truth.”
“We urge others to do the same as we continue our efforts to get to the bottom of what happened during the 2010 election,” Machen said.
But thanks to the work Machen’s done so far, some of the city’s political class has already moved past Gray’s time as mayor. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells have done little to hide the fact that they are eyeing Gray’s seat. The Post is already speculating two years before the next mayoral election that a political outsider like Machen or Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier might win. (Lanier says she’s not interested, and a spokesman for Machen says he’s not given “any consideration to pursuing the mayoral post.”)
Even Gray’s supporters are getting uneasy about his inability to condemn, or even talk about, the illegality that took place in his campaign. One of his few opinion-writing fans at the Post, columnist Robert McCartney, wrote over the weekend that Gray needs to either explain himself or resign.
“The politics require saying something,” says Councilmember Phil Mendelson, an ally of the mayor’s who endorsed him in 2010. “People want some reassurance.”
Mendelson’s chief of staff, Denise Tolliver, knows something about crisis communications. She was brought on as former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s spokeswoman at the height of his troubles (he was forced from office and did time, and he’s set to go to trial later this year on corruption charges). Tolliver says that when she first arrived, Kilpatrick’s office would keep mum when bad news broke, a practice she sought to change. “You’ve got to fight back at some point, because you’re going to lose credibility,” she says.
And former Mayor Anthony Williams, who had plenty of fires to put out in his own day, has this advice for the mayor: “Just let it all out early and often, you know what I mean? That’s the best way to handle it.”
Normally LL would agree, but in Gray’s case, keeping quiet could be both the politically and legally sound move to make. After all, what could Gray possibly say to reassure anyone at this point? There was corruption at the very core of his campaign, and he either knew about it or didn’t. That makes him either a crook or an incompetent leader, and it’s hard to tell which is worse.
Maybe there really is nothing left to do but play catch.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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