Critics are wrong to paint Vincent Gray as alleged victim of Ron Machen’s misconduct

Columnist June 7, 2014

Vincent Gray’s apologists are promoting a mischievous myth that the District mayor was the victim of outrageous misconduct by federal prosecutors in March that cost him reelection.

It’s just not true.

Robert McCartney is The Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering politics and policy in the greater Washington, D.C area. View Archive

Of course Gray lost the April 1 Democratic primary mainly because of U.S. Attorney Ron Machen Jr.’s investigation into dirty tricks and large-scale illegal financing in the mayor’s 2010 campaign. That happened even though Gray strongly denies involvement in the scandal and has yet to be charged.

And, yes, the mayor was badly hurt three weeks before the primary at the court hearing where businessman Jeff Thompson publicly fingered him as having conspired over covert donations.

What’s fictional is the notion that Machen somehow broke the rules or even violated Gray’s constitutional rights in how he handled Thompson’s March 10 plea hearing.

The mayor’s sympathizers suggest that Machen, in his zeal to pursue a high-profile target, violated federal, District or professional ethical standards.

A Gray supporter even filed a rare, formal complaint against Machen with the Office of Bar Counsel, which handles allegations of misconduct by D.C. Bar members.

The accusations aren’t justified. Here’s why:

The fashionable gripe is that Machen’s office overstepped Justice Department guidelines when it identified Gray by name in court as having been a beneficiary of Thompson’s illicit largesse.

Other political candidates who received Thompson’s aid and haven’t been charged were described in court anonymously with an alphabet soup of letters, such as “Council Candidate C.”

The critics ask suggestively: Why did Machen name Gray but not the others?

Answer: The judge made him do it.

A three-page court order, dated March 10 and unsealed Monday in response to my inquiry, confirmed that U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly instructed Machen to name Gray but no one else.

She did so partly on the grounds that references to Gray and his campaign were central to the case. Also, Gray had been named at a previous hearing related to the inquiry.

Machen and his office used Gray’s name only in the courtroom, where the judge is in charge. In a news conference afterward and in related legal documents, they scrupulously referred to him only as “Mayoral Candidate A.”

In a second objection, accusers say Machen’s comments at the news conference smeared Gray and effectively declared him guilty without trial.

I attended that news conference and have reviewed my tape recording of it. The grievances are based on distortions of Machen’s comments or a disregard of crucial context.

Critics protested that Machen went out of his way to pick on Gray. The bar complaint said the U.S. attorney “gratuitously began making claims that Mayor Gray had violated the law.”

But Machen was careful from the start to emphasize that Thompson had pleaded guilty to illegally helping more than a half-dozen candidates over many years. His colorful quotes — such as references to the “sad truth” of “widespread corruption” — applied to the whole of Thompson’s activity, and not just to Gray and the 2010 campaign.

“Year after year, election after election, voters were deceived,” Machen said.

Of course, we in the media peppered Machen with questions almost exclusively about Gray. He wasn’t very helpful.

When asked whether he expected to charge “Mayoral Candidate A,” Machen answered, “I’m not going to speak specifically with respect to any individual.”

Had Candidate A cooperated? “I’m not going to answer that,” Machen said.

It didn’t sound like defamation to me.

“I think this bar complaint [against Machen] is silly,” former U.S. attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. said. “Ron was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. You can’t have a plea of Jeffrey Thompson without having some reference to whom he was giving money.”

The third big criticism of Machen is that he timed the Thompson hearing to hurt Gray in the primary. I’ve rebutted this in a previous column, but here’s the key point: Machen couldn’t control when Thompson decided to start cooperating and plead guilty.

The plea agreement with Thompson was signed March 7. The court hearing was three days later.

Machen could have tried to delay the hearing until after the primary. Then we’d be screaming that he had withheld vital information from voters.

A former Justice Department senior prosecutor, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his firm works with the city government, said of the timing: “Is it a bad break for the mayor? Yeah, it’s a real bad break. I don’t think that’s a result of [Machen’s alleged] misconduct.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

Continue reading
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local