Mayor Vincent Gray on trial while in office? District would suffer, but it’s a real possibility.

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 22

News of the bizarre: District Mayor Vince Gray (D) is running for reelection while his lawyer suggests strongly in media interviews that he expects Gray to be indicted on federal criminal charges.

And this: Gray is assuring constituents that he wouldn’t resign if charges were brought. Instead, he would attempt to govern while defending himself at trial.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Normally, that would not make for an appealing campaign platform. Who wants to vote for somebody who’s likely to land in court?

A trial “would be horrible — it would just be a magnification of the current situation,” said George Derek Musgrove, a history professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who’s writing a book about race and democracy in the District.

Musgrove said such a spectacle would hurt the city’s relations with Congress and hamper Gray’s performance.

Jim Dinegar, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, expressed similar concern. “The investigation will make governing difficult into the future,” he said.

Gray is stuck with his plight. The mayor lost any hope for a normal race when U.S. Attorney Ron Machen alleged March 10 that Gray knew about the large-scale illicit funding of his 2010 campaign.

Now, with just over a week remaining until the April 1 Democratic primary, Gray and his team are trying to turn the predicament to the mayor’s advantage.

They’re casting him as an innocent victim of an overly aggressive prosecutor, dishonest testimony, hostile media and a public rush to judgment.

But the mayor’s appeals for sympathy don’t bear scrutiny. As I wrote March 13, I’m convinced he knew about the “shadow campaign.” But even if you think otherwise, you should accept that the legal system has treated him fairly.

In particular, Gray’s supporters like to complain that Machen’s investigation has dragged on too long to be credible. It’s been nearly three years, they say, and if the prosecutor had the goods, there would be an indictment by now.

Admittedly, it’s too bad that Democrats will have to vote without being able to see and judge for themselves a full case laid out against the mayor.

To a large extent, however, that’s because of a lack of cooperation or delaying tactics on the part of Gray and individuals who worked on or with his campaign. In some cases, this included criminal obstruction.

Also, it’s typical for public corruption cases to require years of painstaking labor. As in Gray’s case, the prosecutor must start with low-level individuals and work up the ladder.

Machen’s inquiry was slowed because two people associated with the campaign, Thomas Gore and Vernon Hawkins, confessed to having made false statements to investigators.

Both are longtime close associates of Gray’s. Both have pleaded guilty to felonies and pledged to cooperate with the government. Gore, who was assistant campaign treasurer, also admitted to destroying evidence.

Machen has faced formidable legal opposition from a pair of stars of Washington’s white-collar defense bar.

Bob Bennett, who represents Gray, wouldn’t allow the mayor to be interviewed by prosecutors. He said he didn’t want to risk that Gray might end up charged with making a false statement himself.

Brendan Sullivan, who represents illicit campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson, forced Machen to go to the Supreme Court in an extended battle over procuring documents.

“Machen had to do battle with one of the very best defense attorneys around,” said Scott Fredericksen, a former federal prosecutor who is now a managing partner at Foley & Lardner. “There’s no fast track for that. It takes years, not months.”

Gray’s supporters also accuse Machen of appearing to meddle in District politics because the Thompson plea agreement took place so close to the primary. That was the first time the mayor was linked directly to illegality.

Bennett told me that he found the timing “highly suspicious.” He also faulted Machen for comments at a news conference after the plea that cast suspicion on Gray.

“It appears that Mr. Machen would like to indict the mayor, in light of the press conference,” Bennett said.

But Fredericksen and other former U.S. prosecutors defended Machen. They said he also would have been criticized if he had delayed the Thompson court hearing. Then voters would have gone to the polls without knowing what Machen knew about the mayor’s alleged wrongdoing.

“There’s never a perfect time,” Fredericksen said.

It’s worth noting that Bennett hasn’t always been critical of Machen. In 2012 comments to Washingtonian magazine, Bennett said the prosecutor, while “an aggressive advocate,” had been “totally responsible and professional” and “very fair.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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