Gray campaign aide says he voiced concerns to candidate about how efforts were being funded
By Nikita Stewart and Mike DeBonis,
The man running field operations for Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign wanted answers.
David Dzidzienyo had watched scores of people toil on Gray’s behalf in the summer heat of 2010, rallying at his stump speeches and knocking on doors to get out the vote. But some did not report to Dzidzienyo — he said they reported to Vernon E. Hawkins, Gray’s longtime friend and a veteran election operative.
While Dzidzienyo struggled to pay his staffers and, at times, ran out of supplies, Hawkins’s efforts seemed flush. Dzidzienyo feared that Hawkins’s operation was siphoning funds from his budget.
He said he alerted Gray, fearing the unknown nature of Hawkins’s undertaking. “Where is this money coming from?” he recalled asking Gray at a campaign church luncheon in August 2010.
Gray, he said, responded: “I don’t want to hear about problems. I just want to be the candidate.”
Dzidzienyo’s account is the first public allegation that Gray was made aware in the summer of 2010 of his own campaign staffers’ unease about the nameless funding of the side effort that would become known as the “shadow campaign” to get the then-D.C. Council chairman elected mayor.
About the time Dzidzienyo said he raised concerns, the shadow operation began ratcheting up its activities, eventually spending $653,000 to help win the election, according to a timetable described by federal prosecutors now investigating Gray’s mayoral bid. The money was not properly reported, as required by law, and operated outside Gray’s regular campaign operation, federal authorities said.
“I would be curious to hear what [Gray’s] response is when he says something, if he ever says something,” Dzidzienyo said. “There is a cloud over the mayor, and this city loses some of its credibility.”
Gray, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, declined to comment on Dzidzienyo’s assertion or other specific allegations regarding the shadow campaign. He has generally said, “This was not the campaign we intended to run.”
Prosecutors have said public-relations executive Jeanne Clarke Harris doled out the funds for the covert campaign over a few months.
On several occasions, Harris — from the back seat of her chauffeured Volvo — also fed instructions to aides on how to get out the vote, according to several people with knowledge of the Gray campaign. The aides would gather in an office adjacent to Gray’s campaign headquarters at Sixth Street NW — a conspicuous arrangement that also confused those who worked on the mayor’s campaign. Workers on the official campaign found Hawkins’s operation unnecessary, especially in light of the success Dzidzienyo was having with the field operation and straw polls.
Harris faces up to 37 years in prison after pleading guilty in July to conspiring to evade federal and local campaign laws and obstruction of justice in a federal probe that has ensnared two other Gray campaign associates. Consultant Howard L. Brooks and assistant treasurer Thomas W. Gore pleaded guilty, acknowledging that they helped pay minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown to publicly disparage the incumbent, Adrian M. Fenty, during the campaign. Brooks has been sentenced to two years’ probation.
Hawkins’s attorney, William E. Lawler III, declined to comment. Harris also declined to comment.
The ‘shadow’ team
When Gray launched his campaign in March 2010, an internal list of campaign workers obtained by The Washington Post identified Hawkins as a “special adviser.” But by midsummer, any references to him had been dropped from internal campaign records.
According to campaign staffers, aides privately told Gray that Hawkins should take a lower profile, citing Fenty’s strategy to link Gray to the old ways of the District by tying him to the city’s financial crisis in the 1990s. Hawkins had served as director of human services during Marion Barry’s last term as mayor before resigning under pressure amid criticism and probes over alleged mismanagement at the agency. At the time, Hawkins denied that his agency was poorly managed.
But Hawkins continued to frequent Gray’s campaign headquarters, and by the summer he had assembled a large team that included three consultants known for their field operations expertise: Vicky Wilcher of West Virginia, Tracy Hardy of Philadelphia and Tracey Watkins of Richmond.
Several people with knowledge of the shadow campaign told The Post that the consultants and Mark H. Long — Harris’s godson and Gray’s driver during the campaign — were paid through Harris’s business. A leased sport-utility vehicle that Long used to chauffeur Gray was arranged for by Harris, according to two people with knowledge of the federal investigation.
Gray has said he believed Long and Hawkins were campaign volunteers.
Long and Wilcher declined to comment. Watkins initially said she would comment but later did not respond to calls for comment. Hardy has said he was paid by Details International, a Harris-owned public-relations firm. None has been accused of wrong- doing.
Dzidzienyo said that he joined the Gray campaign in June 2010 and that over time it became apparent that Hawkins’s operation was a parallel, if separate, campaign.
Casual observers might not have noticed much of a separation. A YouTube video, shot by a regionally based media company and posted July 25, 2010, shows Gray canvassing in Barry Farm, a Ward 8 public housing community. It shows Dzidzienyo taking campaign signs out of a vehicle trunk while Hawkins escorts Gray to a resident’s door in the complex. As Gray later plays basketball with some young men, Hawkins is pulled aside by Carlos Gray, the mayor’s son. Wilcher is also seen in the video, greeting the mayor.
What later became known as the shadow campaign looked like part of the official Gray campaign, said political consultant Earl O’Neal, who worked at the local council of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees at the time and coordinated labor union help for Gray’s campaign.
O’Neal said he was unaware of any input by Harris and others in the campaign.
“I didn’t know those names until after it came out in the press,” O’Neal said. “I just thought [Hawkins and his team] were getting money from [Gray’s] campaign.”
O’Neal said he confronted Hawkins about the out-of-towners he hired, thinking they were usurping Dzidzienyo’s authority as chief of field operations.
Hawkins, according to O’Neal, said he preferred to work with outsiders because “you don’t have to worry about giving them jobs” in the administration after a victory.
Hawkins’s scores of field workers were ubiquitous — at least twice gathering outside Gray’s downtown campaign office, particularly in the last weeks before the election, according to several people who worked with the Gray campaign.
On one occasion, dozens of upset Hawkins workers descended on the Sixth Street office and demanded payment, saying they had not been compensated, according to Gray campaign staff members who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about what they witnessed.
One of the staffers said the Gray campaign feared that the media would find out about the workers’ demands and report what could become a negative story just days ahead of the crucial primary.
Lloyd Jordan, who was brought into the campaign to help organize field operations late in the run-up to the primary, said he also challenged Hawkins after “a bunch of people” showed up late one night at the Gray campaign headquarters.
“People came down, and we wouldn’t let them in — 30-plus,” Jordan said. “I think that was the first night I found out he was trying to do something independently.”
Ties to Jeffrey E. Thompson
According to Harris’s indictment, an alleged co-conspirator funneled money to her firm to fund the shadow campaign. The funds helped cover $58,000 for field workers’ pay, more than $200,000 for other staffers, nearly $128,000 for campaign materials, and $265,000 for hotels, vans and other expenses, the prosecutors said.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. also has said the shadow campaign bought supplies and election tchotchkes from the companies the Gray campaign used.
The shadow campaign also paid to change an awning that hung on Gray’s campaign field office in Ward 4 to display that it was a headquarters for the candidate, according to two people with knowledge of how it was done but who requested anonymity to speak candidly. The awning was initially green, Fenty’s campaign color, and the Gray campaign wanted it changed. It is unclear who requested that the shadow campaign incur that expense.
Several people with knowledge of the federal investigation have said the alleged co-conspirator is businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, whose health-care firm and accounting firm held millions of dollars in city contracts. In court documents, prosecutors have described the co-conspirator as a sole owner of one company and the majority owner of another, which some people with knowledge of the campaign said describes Thompson — whose home and office federal agents raided this year in connection with the campaign probe — and his health-care and accounting firms.
Thompson has ties to Hawkins that reach back to before the 2010 campaign. According to tax documents, Thompson and his companies donated more than $140,000 to Union Temple Baptist Church and its nonprofit group in 2008 and 2009. Hawkins was a longtime administrator of the church and at one point was listed as chief executive of the church’s development corporation. Chartered Health Plan, one of Thompson’s companies, also reported writing off about $200,000 in loans to the church’s nonprofit group from 2008, according to documents filed with insurance regulators.
Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., Thompson’s attorney, declined to comment.
The Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Union Temple, described Hawkins as a “good man” and spoke highly of Thompson.
This summer, when a handful of council members were calling for Gray’s resignation over campaign irregularities, Wilson rallied ministers in his defense.
“You would think all of these people had robbed 10 banks and killed five people,” he said.
“I don’t think what has happened merits the kind of attacks that have come out in terms of what is going on. . . . I hate to see such people be maligned as they have been.”