City Paper is not for tourists
Here’s a question no one seems to have asked yet: Since D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown paid his family to work on his first two campaigns, does that mean he paid them during last year’s race, as well?
Several politically connected friends of Brown think there’s a good chance he did. But you won’t find any record of payments in Brown’s campaign finance reports to Marshall Brown, Kwame’s father, who makes a living running field operations for campaigns and has been in the news lately for racially insensitive comments that cost him his job working for Sekou Biddle; or Che Brown, the chairman’s brother and self-identified “sales expert” (“I help you make more sales with less effort,” says Che’s Twitter account), whose firm, a recent Office of Campaign Finance audit revealed, was paid about $240,000 by one of Kwame’s campaign contractors in 2008.
The chairman’s office declined to respond to requests for comment, and his father and brother did not return multiple calls. But LL didn’t have to look too hard to find plenty of circumstantial evidence that at the very least suggests some of the $735,000 Brown raised in his successful bid for the chairman’s seat last year may have found its way to his family members’ pockets. Consider this pattern: When Brown was first elected as an at-large councilmember in 2004, his father and brother worked on the campaign and were paid about $25,000 for their efforts. He took some flak from his opponents for paying his family, according to an old Washington Post story. The campaign payments stopped in May 2004, several months before Brown went on to pummel incumbent Harold Brazil. But Kwame’s campaign money found its way to Che and Marshall through a third party: a consulting company run by Kwame’s college friend, which was paid more than $64,000 after Brown won the decisive primary. In turn, the Post reported that firm, Capitol Solutions Group, paid Che and Marshall $7,500.
Brown said back then that he wasn’t trying to hide the payments to his family, and there’s nothing wrong with compensating family members for their hard work.
“You rarely see African American families working together in this city,” Brown told Washington City Paper in 2004. “I have no problem paying my family, who’s been there, been knocking on doors.”
When Brown ran for re-election in 2008, City Paper wrote about Kwame and his father Marshall starting the campaign 16 months before the primary election.
Brown got an early start because he was trying to keep other politicos from entering the race. “I’m going to find the best people,” Kwame said in 2007 of his plans. “And I’m pretty sure my dad is going to help me.” Marshall, meanwhile was trying to pump up the perception that his son was unbeatable: “I tell people, if you’re not running now, you can’t beat Kwame.” It must have worked; he ran unopposed in the primary and cruised to an easy re-election in the general election.
There’s no record that Marshall was ever paid for his hard work. Before last week, you’d have no way of knowing that any of Kwame’s money went to family members. That’s because it took the OCF’s damning report to reveal that Brown’s campaign had paid Che’s sales coaching company, Partners in Learning, $240,000 through a third-party field operations company. (The OCF found a whole host of other problems with Brown’s campaign, including failing to initially report $103,000 in donations and $169,000 in expenses.)
“You name it, with my father, it’s the guts of what Kwame does on the campaign,” Che told the Post about how he spent the campaign’s money doing aggressive get-out-the-vote and other field operations.
Brown’s response to the findings? Again, he says he wasn’t trying to circumvent campaign finance disclosure laws. Instead, the company he hired to do the field work, Banner Consulting, needed assistance, so it subcontracted with Che’s sales consulting firm.
That excuse is hard to swallow, especially since the OCF report noted that several payments Brown made to Banner went almost directly to Partners in Learning, sometimes on the same day.
The report also notes that the contract between Banner and the Brown campaign was dated June 1, 2007—the exact same day that Banner and Partners in Learning signed a contract.
Is it worth noting that around this time Brown was getting into deep personal debt, which he said came about in part due to helping family members through financial rough patches? Yes, it is. “You step up and provide,” he told the Post.
OCF has referred its report to its general counsel, and the Post editorial page is calling for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate. And there are still more entities that the Brown family might need to be concerned about. The first is the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which has no record that Partners in Learning, which has an office downtown, is licensed to do business in the District. That’s a possible $2,000 fine!
The second, much scarier organization is the Internal Revenue Service. The report noted that Che Brown couldn’t come up with adequate bank records to show how his company spent the $240,000. The document he did come up with was something called a “profit and loss statement” that says Partners in Learning spent $169,164 on “day labor.”
That’s an awful lot of money to spend on field operatives, many of whom could have quite possibly made more than $600—the magic number that requires workers and campaigns to document payments on 1099 forms for the IRS. (Operatives from other campaigns tell LL they would easily be able to provide those tax forms to an auditor.)
Which brings us to the most recent campaign, where Brown easily dispatched Vincent Orange in his quest for the chairman’s seat. Just like the last two times out, Che and Marshall were a frequent presence on Kwame’s campaign. Che was the ultimate utility man, doing “whatever he was asked to do,” according to a source close to the campaign.
“When you say tireless and all that, I mean he was unbelievable,” the source says of Che, who would pick up checks from donors, help organize fundraisers, and even stuffed goodie bags for volunteers the night before the election for the get-out-the-vote effort. “He would even do the real grunt work around the office.”
Marshall was also close to the campaign, and was seen frequently riding around with field organizer and friend Harold Gist. As in previous campaigns, Kwame contracted his field operation to a consulting company, in this case Gist’s firm, called the Lancer Group.
Campaign finance records show the Brown campaign paid the Lancer Group more than $190,000 last year. The campaign paid Lancer a total of 53 times, sometimes making multiple payments in one day.
LL spoke briefly with Gist, who says Lancer did not pay Che’s Partners in Learning during the 2010 campaign. Gist adds that he doesn’t discuss who Lancer pays, for a variety of reasons, and then begs off the call, saying he was in a meeting. (Gist also says he isn’t working for Orange’s bid for the at-large D.C. Council seat Brown left vacant, but a senior Orange aide tells LL Gist is being paid by the campaign.) Gist did not return several subsequent calls.
Brown’s 2010 campaign also paid another firm called WPW4 $23,005 for supplies and consulting. Google turns up nothing to suggest what WPW4 is or who owns it. In campaign finance records, the company has a P.O. box in D.C., but there are no records with DCRA of it being licensed to do business in town.
Has any of this caught the eye of OCF? Wesley Williams, a spokesman for OCF, says while there’s no official investigation into Brown’s 2010 campaign, his office would be taking a “keener” eye on his recent filings after its audit of the 2008 campaign.
There’s also the matter of Brown’s transition funds, which don’t have to be disclosed to the OCF. After the OCF report came out, LL went looking for the spreadsheet Brown put up on the council website listing contributions and expenses for his transition to chairman, which were privately funded (like Mayor Vince Gray’s transition). The spreadsheets have been taken down, and Brown’s staff so far hasn’t responded to reporters’ requests for a new copy.
All this secrecy looks bad for Brown, whose political reputation landed in the dumps after the fiasco over his picky tastes in luxury SUV interiors. It’s also unnecessary. Everyone in town knows that politics is a family affair for the council chairman, and there’s nothing inherently wrong in paying family members for their work. Just be up front about it.
VINCE GRAY, RETURNED CITIZEN You know the old saying: There’s nothing like getting arrested by the U.S. Capitol Police to make you feel better. No? Well, that oughta be a saying.
For proof, look no further than Mayor Vince Gray, who has a new pep in his step since being arrested Monday while protesting a budget compromise between national Republicans and Democrats that averted a government shutdown but trampled the District’s ability to spend its own money.
Gray, who’s been blown and battered during his first few months in office over various hiring decisions, seems determined to ride this feeling to its end, and has been on a media blitz since his arrest, making stops at CNN and Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, as well as being the star attraction in an editorial in The New York Times.
For the first time since his inauguration, Gray’s in the driver’s seat instead of reacting to a steady drip of bad news. It’s a welcome change, and there’s no denying that Gray feels passionately and earnestly about the District’s rights, or lack thereof.
But LL, cynic that he is, can’t help but wonder what kind of political calculations were behind Gray’s decision to get arrested. After all, there aren’t too many better ways to change the narrative than getting a picture of yourself being arrested on the front page of the local paper; live video of Gray being loaded into a Capitol Police van on the 11 o’clock news Monday night couldn’t have hurt, either.
LL doesn’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with getting arrested for reasons, in part, related to politics. The budget compromise presented Gray with an opportunity, and good politicians seize opportunities.
But Gray doesn’t see it that way. When LL asked the mayor what he would say to cynics who wonder about his political motivation, Gray affixed LL with a look of death.
“That’s very cynical, that’s a very cynical thing to say,” Gray said. “There’s a legitimate issue involved here, and I would invite them to address the legitimate issues.”
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6951.