Federal grand jury subpoenas D.C. Council members’ campaigns

March 14, 2012

A federal grand jury has subpoenaed some of the campaigns of D.C. Council members for records related to political donations and gifts from the city’s largest contractor and his business interests as part of a widening federal probe into campaign finance irregularities.

The subpoenas appear to have been sent to campaigns that have received contributions from Jeffrey E. Thompson in the past several years, according to a council member whose campaign received one but who did not want to speak publicly about it.

The subpoena seeks “all documents” related to Thompson and his partners at his accounting firm Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates, and Chartered Health Plan, a Thompson-run company that has a $322 million city contract, according to a copy of a grand jury document obtained by The Washington Post.

It also requests campaign records, e-mails, invitations and meeting notes, suggesting that federal officials are expanding their interest in Thompson, whose office and home were recently raided by federal investigators. Thompson, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, has declined to comment.

“It’s very broad and it shows you they are really taking this stuff seriously,” said the council member, adding that the subpoenas were being sent to campaign treasurers.

Many council members did not return calls on Tuesday, but Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said their campaigns had not received subpoenas. At a candidate forum Tuesday night, Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) declined to say whether she received a subpoena, according to WTOP.

The grand jury reach into the John A. Wilson Building comes amid an investigation into Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign. That probe focuses on apparent irregularities in money-order donations in possible violation of campaign finance laws, according to people familiar with the investigation who are not allowed to speak publicly about the inquiry. Gray has denied any wrongdoing.

The subpoena also follows council member Vincent B. Orange’s (D-At large) decision to explain $26,000 in money-order and cashier’s-check donations he said his campaign received last year from donors with ties to Thompson.

A Post review of Orange’s campaign documents shows that four groups of money orders were purchased from Western Union on March 10 and are in sequential order. The money orders appear to come from different donors, but the handwriting on several of them appears similar.

Orange, who said he has not received a subpoena, also accepted 10 U.S. Postal Service money orders of $1,000 each. Several of the money orders appear to have used similar font type to identify the donors’ names and addresses.

According to tracking numbers, some of the money orders were purchased in the District but sent in the names of donors with addresses in California or Georgia.

In an interview Tuesday, Orange said he needed Thompson to help raise money during the initial weeks of his campaign last year, but he had no reason to suspect until recently that the donations were “suspicious and questionable.”

Orange, an accountant, said the donations went largely unnoticed because they were part of $191,000 he raised during a reporting period that ended March 10, 2011. He said Thompson dropped off the contributions on that last day of the reporting period. At the time, Orange was trying to unseat Democrat Sekou Biddle, then an interim council member.

“You are scrambling to get their information and meet deadline,” Orange said. “The key is, ‘Did you properly record it, and did you disclose it, and it’s not being hidden’? As a candidate, your job is to follow the law and our campaign . . . followed the law.”

Orange said the Office of Campaign Finance reviewed the money orders last year and found no irregularities. An OCF spokesman was unavailable to comment Tuesday.

Orange’s donations surfaced publicly after FBI and IRS agents raided Thompson’s home and office as part of what his firm called an “ongoing federal investigation into campaign finance in the District of Columbia.”

The raid came eight months after The Post reported that the Gray campaign had an unusual pattern of accepting money orders and turning cash into money orders. Among those money orders, several appeared to have been bundled by Thompson. Gray has not released copies of the documents.

Federal officials also raided the home of Jeanne Clarke Harris, an associate of Thompson. Harris, a public relations specialist who worked as a consultant for Gray’s campaign, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has declined comment. The subpoena of council campaign records also seeks records related to interaction with Harris and her firm, Details International.

Some of the money orders received by Orange came from sources with ties to Thompson or Harris.

Three of the $1,000 money orders came from three women with the last name of Butts who live in Georgia. Orange said Tuesday he does not know the women.

Tiffany Butts, identified in campaign records as a law assistant at Georgia State University, declined to comment on Tuesday about the donation attributed to her. Carrietta Butts, a career counselor at Georgia State University, also declined comment on the donation made in her name. Alexia Butts, a interior design assistant at Savannah College of Art and Design, whose name was on another $1,000 donation, was not available to comment.

According to an obituary in The Post, Carrietta Butts is Harris’s sister, and Tiffany and Alexia are Harris’s nieces.

Several donors Tuesday defended their donations, saying they sent money orders because they did not want to use checks.

“I am an [Orange] supporter. My mom is a retired schoolteacher and has worked in the District for years, and we are just supporting him,” said Russell Binion, who gave two separate $500 money orders purchased on the same day. “He has done so much for schools. It’s my money, every bit of it.”

Binion, who works in sales at Grubbs Pharmacy in Northeast, said he often uses money orders as a form of payment. “It can be money orders, it can be checks, it just depends,” Binion said.

Richard Evans, owner of a job training business in the District, donated two $500 money orders purchased on the same day in his company name.

“I’ve known Vincent for over 20 years,” Evans said. He said he paid in money orders because his company was new so he “didn’t want to use starter checks.”

Orange, who is seeking reelection in the April 3 primary, said last year’s donations “warrant further investigation” by city campaign finance officials.

But Orange’s past campaign irregularities may not be limited to the money orders.

Vicky Wilcher, who worked on Orange’s campaign last year, said Orange’s campaign decided not to pay her directly because it did not want her to show up on campaign finance reports. Wilcher, a Republican, was a leader in the controversial 2004 effort to bring slot machines to the District.

Instead of direct payments, Wilcher claims the campaign initially sent her payments to her friend, Yvonne Moore, a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner. Campaign finance records detail three $1,000 payments to Moore in April and May. Moore hung up the phone when a reporter called seeking comment on Wilcher’s claims.

Orange also declined to comment, saying he did not want to “talk about Vicky Wilcher,” who earlier this year briefly worked for one of Orange’s opponents, Biddle.

Staff writer Nikita Stewart and researcher Jennifer Jenkins also contributed to this report.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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