Get our free newsletter
Sulaimon Brown, what hath you wrought?
Just over a year ago, the former D.C. minor mayoral candidate with a Maryland driver’s license upended the city’s political world with his front-page accusations in the Washington Post. Brown, you all know, claimed he’d taken secret cash payments and the promise of a city job from top officials in Vince Gray’s campaign in return for attacking Gray’s opponent, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty.
The accusations launched a federal investigation that for the better part of a year didn’t appear to be going anywhere. Were there some shenanigans with Brown? Probably, but nothing serious enough to endanger the mayor. After Brown’s accusations, the Post found that the Gray campaign may have illegally been converting cash donations from cab drivers into money orders. Embarrassing for the campaign, sure, but there was nothing to suggest that Hizzoner himself did anything wrong or might be in trouble.
But then came last month’s raid on Jeff Thompson’s house. Thompson, an accountant and Medicaid contractor with a city contract worth $322 million a year, is one of the biggest contributors to local political campaigns. Gray personally collected as much as $100,000 from Thompson and his associates, according to NBC4’s Tom Sherwood.
All of a sudden, the federal probe into Gray’s campaign has gotten a lot more interesting.
“Sulaimon opened Pandora’s box,” says one former Gray campaign aide.
So what’s in that box? Several former Gray campaign aides say what the feds are probably seeing is evidence of a “shadow campaign” separate and apart from the official effort and at least partially funded outside what Gray disclosed in financial reports.
“From the very beginning, I always felt like there were two campaigns,” says a former campaign aide, who, like several others interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity when discussing information that might interest federal agents.
Former aides point to the accusations leveled by Brown against Howard Brooks, the campaign worker Brown says gave him envelopes filled with cash, as the most visible example of this shadow effort. Brooks, who has declined D.C. Council requests to testify about his role in the campaign, has been working with the feds and even worn a wire undercover, according to WUSA9’s Bruce Johnson. Brooks would not comment for this story.
Brooks, who aides say was not close to Gray, is a friend of former campaign chairwoman Lorraine Green. But another campaign worker whom LL has discovered has also caught the attention of investigators for U.S. Attorney Ron Machen is tight with the mayor.
At least part of the federal investigation is looking at Vernon Hawkins, a longtime political operative and close friend of Gray’s, according to two sources familiar with the probe. At issue: what exactly Hawkins’ role was in getting Gray elected.
Several of Gray’s former campaign aides, some of whom have talked to the feds, give varying accounts of how involved Hawkins was with the mayor’s organization. Some describe Hawkins as a well-intentioned pal of Gray’s who was eager to help but didn’t have a large role in the campaign. Others describe him as having an outsized presence, with one former aide calling him the “hub” of the “other” effort, the old hands working to help Gray.
“He was always on the periphery of the campaign,” says the aide.
Hawkins, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, currently works as an administrator at Union Temple Baptist Church in Ward 8. The church’s pastor, Willie Wilson, unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2002, and Hawkins worked on that campaign. In 1996, the control board forced Hawkins out as head of the Department of Human Services over the objections of then-Mayor Marion Barry.
Green, Gray’s former campaign chairwoman, describes Hawkins as an “advisor” to the campaign, and Office of Campaign Finance records show he wasn’t paid. He did do paid work on Gray’s 2006 campaign to be chairman of the D.C. Council. OCF records show he was paid $17,500 after Gray won the primary in that election.
At the beginning of Gray’s mayoral run, Hawkins appeared to have a prominent role. Chuck Thies, a political consultant who interviewed to be Gray’s campaign manager but didn’t get the job, says Hawkins was the point person for a group of Gray supporters who were trying to put together a campaign team before the eventual winner officially got into the race in March of 2010.
“Vernon was at the center of everything that I had to deal with,” says Thies, who did serve as an informal advisor to the campaign even though he didn’t manage it. Thies says that whenever he dropped by Gray’s headquarters, Hawkins was usually there.
Another aide says Hawkins was a semi-regular at Gray’s kitchen cabinet meetings who was frequently asked for advice on how particular campaign strategies would play out east of the river. Other aides say Hawkins played a role in field operations, including vetting campaign literature for Wards 7 and 8. Hawkins acted as a liaison between the D.C. Democratic State Committee and the Gray campaign when the party produced a literature piece promoting Gray and the Democratic ticket just before the general election, according to an email obtained by LL and interviews with aides.
But Hawkins’ turn in D.C. politics didn’t end with Gray’s campaign. He went on to play a similar role in At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange’s campaign in last April’s special election, shortly after Gray won. A campaign aide for Orange says Hawkins was a semi-regular advisor to the campaign. LL asked Orange a month before that election if Hawkins was working for him, and Orange said no. Perhaps that’s technically true, since Hawkins wasn’t paid by the campaign, but during the swearing-in ceremony after he won, Orange thanked Hawkins by name.
“All of a sudden, you know one of the top strategists in town comes around, Mr. Vernon Hawkins, and I was like, ‘uh-oh, what is going on here,’ said Orange, describing how his campaign came together. “And we all just pulled together a very strong team.”
This week, Orange told LL that during the last election Hawkins was “a person who came around the campaign, who I talked to.” He says Hawkins has the same role in his current campaign.
Which could mean the feds won’t be done asking questions for a while.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6951.