Vincent Gray campaign accepted cash donations above legal limit, review shows

July 18, 2011

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign accepted cash contributions above the city’s legal limit and in some cases recorded donations from people who say they didn’t contribute to his mayoral bid, according to a Washington Post review of District records and interviews.

The Post found several instances of cash donations that exceeded the city’s $25 limit. Gray campaign workers then improperly exchanged that cash for money orders, which carry a higher donation limit. The campaign officially reported the money-order donations and not the cash, The Post found.

Money-order donations totaled more than $56,000 — primarily from the city’s taxi industry — and are part of the $2.7 million war chest the Gray campaign amassed in last year’s defeat of incumbent Adrian M. Fenty, who spent nearly $5 million on his reelection bid.

Revelations about the money orders and cash follow allegations that Gray’s campaign paid and promised a job to Sulaimon Brown, a minor mayoral candidate, to entice him to stay in the race and disparage Fenty. The U.S. attorney’s office is investigating Brown’s allegations as part of a criminal probe; Gray has denied any wrongdoing.

Taken together, the allegations suggest that officials in Gray’s campaign either didn’t know the law or disregarded it.

“If there were mistakes that were made and they were willful, obviously, people should be held accountable,” said Gray, adding that because he was a late entry into the race, he had to quickly launch a campaign apparatus. “It was a truncated campaign. . . . It was very chaotic. You had to trust people to run what they were responsible for.”

It is unclear what led to the discrepancies among some of the 233 money-order contributions. Reuben O. Charles II, who oversaw much of the campaign’s fundraising efforts, did not return calls for comment; Howard L. Brooks, a campaign consultant who helped organized taxi industry support for Gray, declined to comment through his attorney.

“It’s easy for campaigns to get out of control. It’s becoming very clear that Vincent Gray had bad actors operating high in his campaign,” said Tony Bullock, a former senior adviser and director of communications for former mayor Anthony A. Williams. “But he is ultimately responsible for the people operating his campaign.”

The investigation

The city’s Office of Campaign Finance is auditing the campaign, but spokesman Wesley Williams said the rules governing donations are clear.

“You’re not allowed to . . . knowingly accept [cash] and turn it into money orders,” Williams said. Contributors “can make the money order themselves, but you can’t make the money order for them.”

Any individual or political committee in violation of city campaign rules could face a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in prison. Anyone who “knowingly” misleads or files misleading reports can be fined up to $10,000 and receive a five-year prison term.

The mayor said that the campaign has complied with the OCF investigation and that a veteran of his previous campaigns, Thomas Gore, provided training material to staffers that specified rules about cash donations. Gore did not return calls seeking comment.

Most of the money-order donations were attributed to taxi drivers, who during the campaign were apparently betting that a Gray administration would look more favorably on their positions than Fenty and lobbied Brooks about it. Over the objections of taxi drivers, Fenty had changed how customers are charged from a zone system to time-and-distance meters.

Representatives of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association acknowledged that the taxi industry raised thousands of dollars in cash for the Gray campaign. “No one from the campaign ever explained to us that it was illegal,” Nathan Price, president of the association, said of the cash donations. He said he didn’t know how many drivers gave contributions of more than $25 at fundraisers.

However, a high-ranking campaign consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue insisted that the campaign did not engage in an effort to evade the law but that someone at campaign headquarters unknowingly broke city campaign finance rules when that person exchanged a handful of money orders for cash contributions.

He said that at times, volunteer hosts of fundraisers also “got the money orders.”

Despite Gray’s decision as mayor to lift a $19 cap on trips within the city and to replace taxi commission chief Leon J. Swain Jr. — actions the cab industry had sought — drivers are disappointed that he has not wholly dismissed a proposed medallion system that they say would favor large companies and squeeze out independent drivers.

“The Ethiopian community gave more than everybody,” Price said. “They’ve gotten much less than a wave, not a kiss on the cheek.”

Drivers at the association headquarters recently recalled two major fundraisers for Gray: one at New Bethany Baptist Church in Northwest that the association said generated about $23,000, and the other at a property owned by an Ethiopian developer near Gray’s Ward 4 campaign headquarters that took in $16,500.

Price recalled the latter fundraiser because taxi drivers presented Gray with $15,000 in checks, money orders and cash. “Then, I acted a fool, and we raised another $1,500,” Price said, saying that the money was collected in a bucket passed around the room. “There were no checks in that last $1,500. That was all in cash. [Gray] was standing right there. Even I was shocked at how the money was flowing.”

Gray recalled the event as a meet-and-greet at which he spoke and answered drivers’ questions, but he said he did not remember the cash solicitation.

Price and cabdriver John Bugg said that independent cab companies also collected cash among their drivers.

Falcon Cab is listed among seven donors of $198 money-order contributions June 24, 2010, but Berhanu Molla, president of the company, insisted that he did not make the donation. “I gave a check,” he said. He said he could not remember the amount of his check contribution, and records don’t show a check donation in his name.

Several money-order contributions were also listed under wrong names or addresses, said people living at the listed locations. For example, five people — all at the same Ninth Street NW address — are listed as giving a total of $325 in money-order contributions June 11, 2010. Yehunie and Tutu Belay, an entrepreneurial couple who run the businesses at the address, said they did not give money orders to the Gray campaign.

Records show two checks for $150 each in Yehunie Belay’s name. He said he recognized only one name out of the five listed in Gray’s campaign finance reports.

“That’s wrong,” said Tutu Belay, his wife. “We never gave money orders.”

“Just stupid”?

Edward Johnson, president of the Greater Brookland Business Association, was perplexed that campaign finance records show “Business Numbers” listed at the address of the association and contributing a $620 money order Sept. 10, 2010.

“There is no ‘Business Numbers,’ ” he said.

Johnson said the association hosted a fundraiser at the San Antonio Bar and Grill and gave the campaign several checks, but he said the group itself did not contribute a money order. “Maybe we raised $8 or $9,000,” he said. “I don’t know how they screwed that up.”

A $1,000 money-order contribution July 16 is attributed to “Youth for a DC United Citizens Group” in campaign finance records, but no address was listed. The group is not registered under city nonprofit records, and The Post could not find the organization.

“I don’t think any such group exists,” said Gray, a native Washingtonian.

Another contributor — a D.C. small-business owner — went to Gray’s Ward 4 headquarters one day, wanting to contribute but sans checks. He said that a campaign staffer gave him a $100 money order to sign after he gave the staffer cash.

“I only had cash,” said the contributor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he thought it was a legitimate donation. “They gave me a receipt.”

Bill Duggan, owner of Madam’s Organ restaurant and bar, was confused when told his business was listed as contributing a $40 money order to Gray on Aug. 29. “That’s a weird, little cheap contribution,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever bought a money order.”

Turns out that restaurant manager Carlos Wilcox spoke to a campaign staffer and told her he wanted to donate $40. “She said, ‘In order to give a cash donation, we need your information,’ ” Wilcox recalled, adding that he gave her his business card.

He had no idea his cash had been converted into a money order. “Not quite sinister,” Duggan said. “Just stupid.”

Still, a senior aide to the campaign said he worries about the impact of the allegations. “With all these stories, it’s become clear that there were two campaigns — the legitimate campaign, and then a rogue operation that was undermining what we were trying to do,” he said. “It’s a shame because Vince ran for mayor to change the way city government did business, and these idiots either didn’t get that memo, or just tore it up.”

Staff writer Issac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.

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