Seeking to make a D.C. Council comeback, Michael A. Brown is telling voters that he has been cleared in a federal investigation into how more than $100,000 disappeared from a previous campaign account.
Brown, who was unseated in November and is now a candidate in an April 23 special election for an at-large seat, has said the U.S. attorney’s office told him that he is not a subject of the federal probe. City officials are also trying to unravel how Brown’s campaign account was essentially wiped out.
“I’ve been having to answer a lot of questions, for things I had nothing to do with,” Brown told several dozen activists at a candidates forum Tuesday night in the Takoma neighborhood. “I’m glad that is over with, and behind me, and I can talk about issues and highlight my record.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney declined to comment, and no arrests have been made in the case, which some say torpedoed Brown’s political career, including hopes of becoming mayor.
Last summer, when he was heavily favored to win a second at-large council term, Brown reported that $113,950 had been stolen from his campaign account over 18 months.
Brown told investigators that his campaign treasurer had made “unauthorized” withdrawals from the account. The treasurer, Hakim J. Sutton, said through his attorney that Brown had cleared the withdrawals as salary payments and had then made public allegations to cover a poor job of fundraising.
The investigation by D.C. police and the U.S. attorney’s office upended Brown’s campaign; he lost his at-large seat by about 20,000 votes to another independent candidate, David A. Grosso.
Grosso argued during the campaign that the missing money fit a pattern of financial missteps by Brown, including past failures to pay his mortgage, rent and property taxes on time. Grosso also made an issue of five suspensions of Brown’s driver’s license in the preceding eight years.
Brown, one of seven candidates in the April special election, has said he is optimistic that voters will give him another chance. He said in an interview that federal investigators had told him that they “traced all the dollars” missing from his campaign account and that “none of them came anywhere near me.”
Brown also has pointed to an Office of Campaign Finance complaint last month that Sutton “knowingly and willfully” violated the District code by writing himself 34 checks from Brown’s campaign account.
William O. SanFord, general counsel for the OCF, said auditors believe that Sutton is responsible for the missing money. “We never had any suspicions that Michael Brown was involved in any impropriety, based on what our auditors uncovered during the audit,” SanFord said.
The OCF has asked that the Board of Elections obtain sworn testimony and records from Sutton and vote on whether to refer to the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution.
Ken McGhie, general counsel for the Board of Elections, said his office has been unable to find Sutton to serve him with a summons for his personal bank records. “He isn’t picking up his mail, and he’s not there when we try to serve him,” McGhie said. “As soon as we serve him, we will have a hearing.”
Sutton did not return repeated calls seeking comment. His attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, disputed that his client has disappeared.
“The Board of Elections is just pulling a stunt,” Gordon said. “He’s not hard to find.”
Gordon questioned the OCF’s ability to reach conclusions without interviewing his client. He also wondered why the election board would pursue the matter when the criminal investigation is underway. Gordon said he “had some discussions” with officials in the U.S. attorney’s office last month and is “waiting for their next move.”
“They were going to do certain things, but for whatever reasons, they haven’t done it,” Gordon said. He also said Sutton expects to enter into an “information sharing” arrangement with prosecutors.
As for Brown — who is running as a Democrat this time, not as an independent candidate — observers are divided over whether he is ready to rebound from the controversy.
Brown’s biggest challenge could come from the incumbent, Anita Bonds (D), who was selected by District Democrats to temporarily fill the at-large seat vacated when Phil Mendelson (D) became council chairman. Bonds hopes to build support in what has been Brown’s base in Northeast Washington and areas east of the Anacostia River.
Robert Brannum, the head of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee, supported Brown last year but is backing Bonds this time. Brannum said Brown is trying to make a comeback too soon. “He needs some personal time. . . . It takes time for public perceptions to evolve,” Brannum said. “There were issues that were brought up up strongly and fervently in the media that, rightly or wrongly, stained him.”
Debbie Smith-Steiner, a Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and a Brown supporter, said she believes that voters are ready to give him another shot at elective office.
“All of those issues are behind him, and he realizes the mistakes that he made,” she said. “We are on a new path, and he wants to continue his unfinished business.”