Courtland Milloy
Courtland Milloy
Local Columnist

A courtroom reality check for 75-year-old political bagwoman

As an expert in mental health law, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has handled high-profile cases in which defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity. Others have undergone psychiatric evaluation and were found incompetent to stand trial.

And then there are defendants like Jeanne Clarke Harris, 75, who Kollar-Kotelly just wanted to make sure was of sound mind before accepting her guilty plea Tuesday for mind-boggling behavior.

Courtland Milloy

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(Jabin Botsford/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Jeanne Clarke Harris leaves the U.S. District Courthouse Tuesday.

According to federal prosecutors, Harris was part of a scheme to evade the legal limits on federal and District campaign contributions. She also served, in effect, as a bagwoman in 2010 for secretly funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect someone identified in court documents only as “Candidate A.”

Those familiar with the probe say the “candidate” is D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).

“Have you had any kind of medication or alcohol in the last 24 hours?” Kollar-Kotelly asked.

Harris, who sat in a wheelchair at the defendant’s table, replied that she’d had two drinks the night before — a modest amount under the circumstances — and had taken medication for arthritis and high blood pressure. She was cleareyed, her words well-articulated.

“Just making sure your mind is clear,” the judge said.

The implications of Harris’s plea are profound for Gray. He has denied knowing about illegal money going into his campaign. But now we’re talking about close to $1 million in a few months. Was he that clueless, or simply not telling the truth? ­Kollar-Kotelly would surely find signs of mental health problems in either answer.

Harris, who was born in Detroit, lives in Ward 7 — Gray’s home turf. Asked how much education she had, Harris said three years of college.

During the plea hearing, prosecutors told the judge that Harris had been “instructed” and “directed” to hit up family members and friends for campaign contributions by someone identified only as “Co-Conspirator No. 1.” Although she had complied “willingly,” as prosecutors put it, they still made it sound as if she had been under the spell of some financial Svengali.

The contributions could never be more than $2,000 — the legal limit in the District, she was told, and the money was always reimbursed by the co-conspirator. That way, prosecutors said, the co-conspirator was able to make $38,000 in secret donations just in 2010.

The mystery man is reported to be Jeffrey Thompson — sole owner of D.C. Chartered Health Plan and majority owner of the accounting firm Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates. Judging from court documents, Thompson enjoys playing the big shot and having candidates for local and national office genuflect and beg him for money.

Such behavior also hints at mental health problems — such as delusions of grandeur. As for allowing a 75-year-old woman to take the fall for his shadowy political schemes, that’s just cowardly.

Earlier this year, the FBI raided Thompson’s home and offices — along with Harris’s home and her public relations outfit — and seized dozens of documents and hundreds of thousands of electronic records.

Whatever spell she may have been under before then, the shock of the raid apparently brought her back to reality. In short order, she pleaded guilty and began cooperating with federal prosecutors. And she was the third close associate of Gray’s to do so.

“You have the right to present witnesses,” the judge said. “You can’t be forced to incriminate yourself. . . . You’re innocent until you admit your guilt in court. . . . Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Harris replied. To give up such fundamental rights, the evidence against her had to be overwhelming.

Nevertheless, Kollar-Kotelly probed Harris the way she would a defendant in a mental competency hearing.

Although best known as the judge who presided over the Microsoft antitrust trial, Kollar-Kotelly also handled the infamous “Shotgun Stalker” case in 1994. James E. Swann Jr. had terrorized two D.C. neighborhoods with 14 random shotgun attacks that resulted in four deaths. She found Swann not guilty by reason of insanity and sent him to St. Elizabeths Hospital indefinitely. In the 1980s, she served as chief legal counsel to St. Elizabeths and later as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine in a joint teaching program on mental health and the law.

“Have you had anything that affects your ability to understand?” she asked Harris before accepting her guilty plea. “Ever had any treatment for mental or emotional disorders?”

“No,” Harris replied. “But I need some.”

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

 
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