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A low-key District contractor doubles as a ‘kingmaker’

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The National Council of Negro Women needed a new home in the mid-1990s, and founder Dorothy I. Height had her eye on a building on Pennsylvania Avenue — a powerful symbol, located between the Capitol and the White House and steps away from a former slave market.

The $11 million price tag was steep, though. She turned to Jeffrey E. Thompson — a “master of financial matters,” she wrote in her memoir — to secure a down payment.

At a memorial service for Height last year, Thompson told the audience that he understood how important it was “to us as a people to have a home on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

It took him 15 minutes to raise the funding.

It was a rare moment for Thompson, to step before cameras and a public audience to speak of his considerable influence. Over nearly 30 years, he has used his skills, charm and persistence to build a small accounting firm into a business empire — in large part through government contracts. He has also constructed a political network nurtured by substantial campaign contributions.

His accounting firm, Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates, remains a major District government contractor; it did $3.4 million in city business in 2010, according to city records. Thompson is also sole owner of Chartered Health Plan, which holds the city’s largest contract, worth as much as $322 million yearly.

Thompson’s companies have largely avoided public scrutiny, even as the city filed a civil suit in court claiming that Chartered bilked the city out of millions, according to court records. The matter was settled in 2008, with Chartered agreeing to a $12 million settlement with the city. This summer, questions about Chartered have re-emerged, after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) asked the D.C. Council to approve a $32 million payment to city Medicaid providers that would have primarily benefited Chartered.

Thompson has remained silent. Through attorney Frederick D. Cooke Jr., Thompson declined to speak with The Washington Post about his business and political activities. Several of his personal and political associates also declined to discuss Thompson, citing his desire for privacy.

Barbara Lang, a close friend and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said that Thompson prefers to remain “behind the scenes” in business and politics. “He does not like that kind of attention.”

City contract

Thompson is “the consummate Washington guy,” says former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). “I say this as a compliment: He knows how to get things done.”

It’s a hard-earned role for the 56-year-old Jamaican immigrant, the youngest of 11 children. He earned an accounting degree in 1976 from what is now the University of the District of Columbia, magna cum laude, working as a bookkeeper for the National Rifle Association to finance his studies. Before he was 30, he founded his namesake firm.

Today, TCBA is routinely mentioned as one of the nation’s largest minority-owned accounting firms. It has done extensive work for federal agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among its private-sector clients has been the NAACP, conducting financial audits and tabulating the results of its annual Image Awards.

But Thompson plays a significant role in District politics. It was Thompson who first noted to Williams, who in 1995 was a relatively obscure federal official, that the city would soon be hiring its first-ever independent chief financial officer, the former mayor said.

Thompson found a business opportunity in Williams’s controversial plan to close the troubled D.C. General Hospital. The hospital was to be replaced with an insurance program for low-income residents, where private companies would enroll participants, create a provider network and manage claims.

In 2000, Thompson acquired Chartered Health Plan, which ran Medicaid managed-care programs for the city, and it soon became a key player in the new insurance program, the D.C. Healthcare Alliance.

The Alliance was given scant oversight in its early years; a 2002 D.C. inspector general investigation found that Chartered kept poor documentation and was not managing its responsibilities well. In 2005, the D.C. Council, at the request of David A. Catania (I-At Large), ordered a comprehensive audit of health-care programs.

A subsequent report from independent auditors found that Chartered’s Medicaid business engaged in questionable transactions with companies also owned by Thompson. In all, auditors found about $7.7 million in questionable expenses. Chartered objected to the report’s findings, claiming the auditors were not equipped to examine its business.

Then-Attorney General Peter J. Nickles sued the company in March 2008, and the lawsuit was settled six months later. In addition to a $12 million payout, Chartered, which did not admit any wrongdoing, agreed to heightened compliance and reporting standards for a five-year period, plus charitable commitments worth more than $5 million.

Before the case was settled, the Fenty administration renewed its lucrative Medicaid contract with Chartered — to Catania’s chagrin. “I was not excited, to put it mildly,” he said.

Williams said Thompson’s overall record justifies the city’s ongoing business with Chartered. “We’ve done business with a lot of businesses in this city where mistakes may or may not have been made,” he said. “And we learn from them and we move on, and we took the totality into account.”

A private persona

Thompson’s desire to stay out of the public eye contrasts with his private persona, which is garrulous and magnetic. Towering and silver-haired with a booming, Caribbean-accented voice, he favors fine suits, lavish Christmas parties and courtside seats at Wizards games.

“It’s like Bill Clinton,” Lang said. “When Bill Clinton walks in the room, he fills the room with his personality and his style. Jeff does as well.”

His philanthropy is extensive. In addition to his long-standing relationship with Height, he has been an active fundraiser for UDC. He has assisted the National Urban League, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia.

But his charitable giving is easily rivaled by his political fundraising. He has personally contributed more than $200,000 to federal campaigns and other committees, according to records. Those records do not include “bundled” contributions from business partners, family members and other elements of his personal network, records show.

His influence is magnified in city politics, where he stands nearly alone in his ability to raise a campaign-making sum in short order. One city political fundraiser, who requested to remain anonymous to maintain a relationship with Thompson, called him a “kingmaker,” capable of delivering as much as $100,000 to a citywide candidate. Washington City Paper recently calculated that $730,000 in local political donations in the past decade can be traced to Thompson and his companies.

His influence was on display during the most recent city election, to fill the at-large D.C. Council seat Kwame R. Brown (D) vacated upon winning the chairmanship last fall.

Around New Year’s, Thompson commissioned a local pollster to survey city residents on the low-profile race, according to sources familiar with the poll. It found that former Ward 5 member Vincent B. Orange, who had recently lost a bid among Democratic Party activists to hold the seat on an interim basis, had a 20-point lead over the interim appointee, Sekou Biddle.

In January, Biddle amassed a string of key endorsements, including those of Gray and Brown, and held several well-attended fundraisers. That led many political observers to write off Orange.

But late in the month, Orange leaked the poll results to show potential funders he remained a viable candidate, and in the next six weeks he raised $191,000, far outstripping Biddle, a source involved in Orange’s fundraising said. The source said that about half of that haul was raised from people with ties to Thompson, including numerous TCBA and Chartered employees.

The poll and the funding helped turn Orange into an instant front-runner — he went on to win the April 26 special election, beating Biddle, Republican Patrick Mara and six others.

Orange declined to comment. “I’m not talking about Jeff Thompson,” he said.

Getting answers

Thompson raised considerable sums for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), and officials who worked in Fenty’s administration say Thompson was not shy about calling about business grievances, moving up the chain of command when he did not get an answer he liked. Calls would also come in from his allies on the D.C. Council and elsewhere.

In the late months of the Fenty administration, Nickles said Thompson asked the city to pay Chartered $14.9 million over a billing dispute over dental care.

The Fenty administration did not honor Chartered’s requests, arguing that thereimbursements had been figured into the rates it had previously agreed to. In September, Chartered filed a complaint with the city’s Contract Appeals Board; a month later, the city filed a motion to dismiss. The board has not yet ruled on the case.

Early in Gray’s mayoralty, Thompson paid a visit to Wayne M. Turnage, the city’s new health- care finance director. He wanted to discuss the dental dispute.

In late June, Turnage told The Post that he agreed to settle the dispute for $10.2 million after city consultants found “exposure.” Part of the settlement was included in a $32 million increase for the city’s managed-care providers.

The additional funding was controversial, with Catania and others objecting to the last-second change to the city budget. But the D.C. Council voted to make the additional money a top priority on a 7 to 6 vote. Orange spoke in favor: “I’m going to speak up for people who need publicly financed health-care programs,” he said on the council dais.

Sharon Baskerville, executive director of the D.C. Primary Care Association, which advocates for more accessible and higher-quality health care, said Thompson profited during a period when the city was not holding its contractors to high standards of accountability.

“When you have a city agency that has not historically been on top of their game in managing their contractors, they’ve definitely found ways to kick the ball in their favor,” she said.

This month, Catania scheduled a hearing on the settlement, specifically requesting Thompson’s presence. Two days later, Turnage told the council that the settlement was under review. The hearing was canceled.

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