Mayor Gray’s 2010 campaign had database of public-housing residents

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign kept a database with the identities of nearly 6,000 public housing residents it targeted in get-out-the-vote efforts, which appears to be an unauthorized use of private government information.

The database, part of a cache of documents The Washington Post obtained from former campaign workers, includes residents’ names, addresses and telephone numbers. One of the documents designated “team captains” responsible for reaching out to tenants in specific housing complexes.

It is unclear who assembled the list or how the campaign got it, but two campaign workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing federal investigation, said it was used in the final week before the Democratic primary election to register residents and get voters to the polls. The workers said the tenant roster was a tool used to target people the Gray campaign thought would support him over then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

The list helped Gray’s campaign identify residents thought to be among the most sympathetic to his cause but who generally have not turned out in significant numbers in city elections.

The task of identifying potential voters changed with the 2010 primary, the first time the District allowed same-day voter registration and early voting. The Gray campaign engaged in a citywide strategy but stressed reaching out to seniors and public housing residents, the two former workers said.

Housing lawyers consulted by The Post said the use of such a list by a political campaign could violate a variety of laws and regulations, both federal and local, starting with the prohibition against using government resources for political purposes.

David Gilmore, who led housing authorities in several cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Boston, and is now a consultant, said he was shocked that an official list of public housing residents would end up in the hands of a political campaign.

“They absolutely have an ironclad responsibility to keep that stuff private,” he said of housing authorities.

The D.C. Housing Authority said it did not release the information and would not have done so even under a public records request. There is no record of a Freedom of Information Act request for the residents’ data in 2010, spokeswoman Dena Michaelson said.

Gray said he was unaware that his campaign staff had a database of public housing dwellers. “Frankly, such a list wouldn’t have been of any use,” Gray said in a statement. “My long-standing personal relationships with many community leaders in public housing allowed me to connect directly with people in these neighborhoods.”

The existence of the database and the campaign’s alleged use is the latest in a series of revelations about Gray’s 2010 election, which U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has said was “compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash.”

Machen’s investigation has led to guilty pleas from two campaign aides in a scheme to secretly pay a minor mayoral candidate to disparage Fenty and, most recently, a public relations consultant who admitted to orchestrating a $653,800 off-the-books “shadow campaign” to help get Gray elected.

Gray, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, has declined to answer questions about the federal investigation on the advice of his attorney, Robert Bennett. But the mayor said he was surprised to learn of the internal campaign documents obtained by The Post.

What the campaign had

The documents obtained include the database; a dossier on Ronald L. Moten, a Ward 7 community activist and Fenty supporter whose nonprofit had millions of dollars in city contracts; and a briefing for a forum sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington that recommended Gray attack Fenty with “an above-the-fray, bemused smile.”

It is unknown who obtained the database for the Gray campaign, but several Housing Authority employees were campaign volunteers, including Carlos Gray, the mayor’s son.

Carlos Gray, a business development and marketing director with the city’s Housing Authority, denied knowing about the database.

In a series of e-mails, Carlos Gray also said he maintained “a wall” between his job and his work on his father’s campaign. “Mostly I helped my dad by knocking on doors and passing out campaign literature at Metro stations,” he wrote.

But one of the documents, titled “affinity group coordinators,” designated Carlos Gray as one of two people who handled public housing efforts. A list of “public housing outreach coordinators” identified him as a “team captain” in charge of the Benning Terrace, Stoddert Terrace, Garfield Terrace Family and Park Morton complexes.

Told of the documents, Carlos Gray wrote: “On election day, I volunteered to assist [in get-out-the-vote] efforts in some of the public-housing neighborhoods. I assume that title is to identify volunteers by task on election day.”

Tom Lindenfeld, a political consultant who worked on Fenty’s 2010 campaign, said the tenant roster could help turn unregistered or infrequent voters into “new voters,” boosting turnout for Gray. “You’re talking about a low-propensity voter,” he said. “A list like that would add enormous value.”

A team captain provided The Post with a paper copy of a list of several hundred residents in one of the housing complexes identified in the database. The team captain recalled getting the list in late July or early August at Gray campaign headquarters.

“We would go and knock on doors and pass out fliers to the people. We used it on Election Day,” said the team captain, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the campaign’s efforts.

Higher turnout

In key precincts with high concentrations of public housing, turnout increased drastically over that of the 2006 Democratic primary, with voters overwhelmingly favoring Gray. Those precincts helped drive a 32 percent rise in turnout east of the Anacostia River, where Gray racked up a 20,000-vote margin toward his 13,000-vote victory. The precincts included the 107th, where Stoddert residents vote.

Those precincts identified by The Post as having a high number of public housing residents were also among those with the highest percentage of votes cast via absentee or provisional ballots. Same-day registrants cast provisional ballots, which are subject to challenge before they are certified by election officials.

Nearly one in five ballots cast in Precinct 97, home to Lincoln Heights housing projects, was by absentee or provisional ballot, the second-highest percentage among the city’s 143 precincts.

The public-housing-heavy precincts, while seeing significant increases in turnout, were not among those with the very highest growth. Those precincts were generally downtown or in gentrifying areas that have seen significant population growth in recent years, places where Fenty generally did well.

Lloyd Jordan, who handled field operations for the Gray campaign, said as far as he knew, the campaign used traditional “walk sheets of registered voters.”

“You go to people who would likely vote,” Jordan said, adding that a public housing list would be “a waste of time and money.”

He said he was unaware that the campaign had such a list but could not unequivocally say that it did not. “The campaign is not responsible for everything that everyone does,” Jordan said.

Using a private government database for a campaign could violate the federal and local laws prohibiting the use of official government resources for political purposes, the lawyers said.

Further, the act of obtaining the list could be construed as a crime under federal law.

Privacy concerns

Although government records are broadly considered to be available to the public under the federal and local Freedom of Information acts, lawyers and public housing experts interviewed agreed that a list of names and other personal information about residents should be withheld under an exemption for materials that create a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Gilmore, who served as a court-appointed receiver for the D.C. public housing system in the last half of the 1990s, said that if a person filed a Freedom of Information Act request for that data, he would not fulfill it.

“That’s really serious stuff,” Gilmore said. “If any of my employees told me they had provided that information, that would be the last moment of their employment. They’d be garroted.”

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has previously denied requests for lists of residents receiving public assistance, saying in 1992 that it would “constitute a substantial invasion of privacy.”

Housing Authority records exempt from the information act would generally be covered by the federal Privacy Act, which requires agencies to obtain written consent from those named in records before releasing them.

Government employees found to have improperly released protected records or people found to have obtained them under false pretenses can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $5,000.

“It’s very similar to people on” public assistance, said Michaelson, of the Housing Authority. “Just because they receive a federal benefit, they don’t lose the right to privacy.”

Karen Settles, president of the resident council at Stoddert, said it’s troublesome that residents’ information got out. The Post was able to contact her through a cellphone number from the database.

“I was a cooperative supporter and, as far as other residents, there was no coercion as far as their participation,” said Settles, adding that Gray campaigned in her neighborhood in 2010. “He walked our community, and he resolved many of our issues. . . . He has the type of humanity we need to see in our politicians.”

Settles said the controversies surrounding the 2010 election could help future candidates be more vigilant about knowing more about their campaigns.

“People need to understand election laws, the process,” she said. “It’s a learning moment.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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