Vincent Orange campaign audit is not an absolution

October 26, 2012

Orange prepares to vote in April’s primary. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Six days ago, D.C. Council member Vincent Orange stood at a debate and, under questioning about his 2011 campaign finances, assured voters that “all of my stuff is in order.” He suggested members of the media would owe him apologies by the time the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance finished its seven months of investigation into his special election campaign.

On Friday, the office released its final audit confirming that Orange’s special election campaign finances were in order — depending on what your definition of order is.

Under the loosest definition, yes, Orange’s campaign earned a clean bill of health. He cleared up the usual issues that get uncovered when auditors pore through a campaign account with fine-tooth combs, and it was not docked for any major violations or referred to enforcement authorities for fines or criminal inquiry.

Under stricter scrutiny, things are spottier. In addition to a handful of excessive and unreported contributions, auditors identified more than $25,000 worth of unreported spending and another $21,000 of spending handled outside the campaign’s official bank account, which is not chump change in a $300,000 campaign. Also alarming, given Orange’s habit of discussing his background as an accountant, was that documentation to verify his receipts and expenditures (“contributor checks, credit card information, and/or solicitation materials and invoices, receipts, vouchers, and/or contracts”) was not immediately available to auditors. In July, the campaign produced the records, and auditors signed off. 

In the matter of greatest public interest — Orange’s acceptance of 30 money orders and three cashier’s checks tied to city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson, worth $26,000 — the audit is hardly an absolution.

Back in March, Orange called the money order donations “questionable,” which was obvious to anyone who examined them. The serial numbers on many of the money orders were sequential, and the handwriting on several was quite similar. Money orders carrying the names of Georgia and California residents had been purchased in the District.

The report indicates that the campaign finance office asked Orange to “indicate the circumstances under which the contributions were received,” which he did: “On September 21, 2012, the Candidate responded in a notarized statement that he at no time did he suspect or have reason to suspect any improprieties in the campaign fundraising process.”

But the report does not indicate that campaign finance officials questioned the donors or made other attempts to determine whether the money orders were illicit “straw donations” funded with Thompson’s cash. (A Thompson associate, Jeanne Clarke Harris, admitted in federal court in July to making straw donations using Thompson funds.) 

Orange’s notarized statement was not included in the publicly released report, but Orange defended himself at last Saturday’s debate: “The law states that no one should go out and have someone else make a contribution in someone else’s name, and a campaign should not knowingly accept fraudulent contributions. In both cases, I did not do that, nor did anyone on my staff.”

He added he had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the money orders, which represented about a fourth of his early donor haul: “I was not handed a stack of money orders. My campaign was not handed a stack of money orders.”

So, in the end, the money orders were questionable back in March, and, after the audit, remain questionable now. The Office of Campaign Finance report concludes only that the Orange campaign did enough due diligence to meet the then-miniscule requirements of D.C. law as it relates to money order donations.

Since March, the D.C. Council has passed a law restricting money order donations to a maximum of $50, in keeping with federal restrictions. Pressed at the debate to detail changes he’s made in his campaigns to prevent more “questionable” donations, Orange demurred: “My campaign is in compliance, and we have not received any money orders. … As things come up, we change the law to address issues. But at the end of the day I’m still standing strong because I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | October 26, 2012