City Paper is not for tourists
For a movie producer in Hollywood, Proteus Spann certainly appears to care a lot about D.C. politics.
Since 2006, Spann has given $27,000 to local political campaigns as an individual and through his two production companies, Proteus E2 Productions and Pro2Play.
Why those donations matter: Spann’s giving pattern aligns almost perfectly with donations from Jeff Thompson, the Medicaid contractor who is at the center of a federal investigation into D.C. campaign finances.
Thompson’s home and offices were raided last month by federal authorities, who have also subpoenaed donation records related to Thompson from several sitting councilmembers. After the raid, Councilmember Vincent Orange, one of the biggest recipients of Thompson-related funds, released a batch of money orders linked to Thompson he called “suspicious.” Those money orders have Wilson Building wags wondering if Thompson used straw donors to circumvent campaign giving maximums.
Spann’s donations are almost always given on the same date, in the same amount, and to the same D.C. candidates as Thompson’s vast network of donors. (Not just in D.C.: When Thompson’s network gave thousands to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s 2009 campaign, Spann gave $1,250 on the same day.) Thompson’s network has given more than $800,000 in the last decade to almost every District politician.
So what’s the connection between Thompson and a guy in the movie business 2,300 miles away from D.C.? Spann’s been pretty cagey with an answer. When LL emailed him last June asking if he knew Thompson, Spann answered with, “do u know Dan Snyder,” referring, of course, to the Washington Redskins owner who was then suing Washington City Paper.
Last month, Spann told the Washington Times that he knows Thompson but is not business partners with him.
But several people who know Spann say otherwise, telling LL the pair have a long, if not easily defined, working relationship.
A D.C. native who’s been using California and New York addresses for political donations since 2006, Spann has worked as a casting assistant on the TV show Soul Food and produced the musical Sanctified at the Lincoln Theatre in 2010. His biggest claim to fame in the showbiz world is being the owner of the rights to the works of the late author E. Lynn Harris. Harris, who died in 2009, was one of the country’s preeminent gay black writers. His self-published first novel, Invisible Life, which explored the life of black men on the “down low,” eventually sold more than a million copies.
Spann is in the midst of turning Invisible Life into a movie, according to several published reports. Joining Spann as a producer is Tracey Edmonds, ex-wife to singer/songwriter Babyface. Glendon Palmer, another producer on the film, says he’s met Thompson a few times through Spann.
“I know they have a business relationship,” Palmer says, though he says he doesn’t know the details of that relationship.
(Incidentally, Harris’ mother is suing Spann in federal court, saying he fraudulently obtained the rights to Harris’ work, a claim Spann’s lawyers deny.)
Closer to home, a longtime associate of Spann’s, who asked not to be named while discussing a friend’s business activities, says Spann has also been on Thompson’s bankroll as personal assistant of sorts.
Though the exact nature of that work isn’t totally clear, Spann used to check into rooms for Thompson and his guests at the Ritz Carlton downtown, according to a former hotel concierge who also knows Spann socially. The concierge, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about hotel guests, says Spann checked into rooms for Thompson about once a month for several years.
Asked about the hotel and whether Thompson was involved in his entertainment career, Spann said, “Absolutely not.” When asked to describe his relationship with Thompson over a series of emails, Spann responded with gibberish, comparing himself to Trayvon Martin and writing, “I’m an AMERICAN. MAY WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US IN THE NAME OF BUSH AND the NRA.”
Whatever, dude. (Thompson’s lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, didn’t respond to LL’s questions about Spann.) It’s worth nothing that Spann, like Thompson, has a couple of eyebrow-raising political donations to D.C. pols tied to him. Both Spann and Thompson have given money to many D.C. candidates, including Mayor Vince Gray.
In August 2010, Thompson held a fundraiser for Ward 6 candidate Kelvin Robinson, which pulled in checks for $500 from Spann and one of his production companies. There was also a $500 money order from Spann’s L.A. address under the name Tim Johnson. The handwriting on the money order strongly resembles the handwriting on Spann’s personal check, and a public records search turns up no Tim Johnson at Spann’s address. Campaign finance records show that Johnson’s only other donations came in that same month: a $2,000 check to Gray and a $1,500 credit card payment to Orange.
Robinson had said in an earlier interview that he doesn’t know who Spann is and that “Thompson handled the fundraising portion of it.” LL called Robinson recently to ask about the Tim Johnson donation, but Robinson did not return LL’s call. (Robinson would go on to lose that 2010 campaign to Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, the only member of the D.C. Council not to take money from Thompson or his network.)
In March 2011, Spann and two production companies gave $3,000 to Orange’s campaign for an at-large special election. One of his co-producers on Invisible Life, Javon Johnson, gave $2,000. Another L.A.-based company gave $1,000 using an address previously used by Spann in 2006 and 2007. But that company, Envision LLC, is listed in California records as being owned by someone living 400 miles north of L.A. whose name is not Proteus Spann.
Orange, who appears to have won re-election this week, has twice declined to comment to LL about Spann’s donations.
Spann did not respond to questions about specific donations, but said his political contributions were all his. “As a native Washingtonian I have deep roots in DC with family, friends and business. The candidates I contribute to, I embrace and support their platform,” he wrote. “AND FOR THE RECORD NO ONE INFLUENCES MY POLITICAL DONATIONS.”
That cyber yelling, by the way, was a lot nicer than the response LL got from another L.A.-based member of the Thompson network. Phil Thornton—a producer whose company represents Tristan Wilds, who played young hitman Michael on The Wire—also has a giving pattern that aligns almost identically with Thompson’s, including in Maryland and Atlanta campaigns. Thornton and companies connected to him have given $28,000 to local pols since 2006.
Thornton’s online bio says he founded Bright Star Entertainment, a company D.C. corporate registrations bear no evidence for the existence of, but one that’s frequently listed in campaign records as sharing the same office space as Thompson’s accounting firm.
On March 10, 2011, Thornton gave Orange’s campaign $1,000 via credit card. Two other entities also gave $1,000 credit card donations from the same address as Thornton’s L.A. home. And Thornton’s name also turned up on two money orders purchased in D.C. at the same time and same location that money orders signed by Thompson were purchased. The handwriting on all of the money orders, save for the signatures, looks identical. (See for yourself here.)
When LL asked Thornton about his political giving, his response was: “I told you the last time you called to leave me the fuck alone. Don’t call me again.”
Sheesh, can’t a guy ask questions?
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6951.