April 26, 2013

As the federal prosecutor of corruption in the District, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has made himself one of the city’s most influential figures. But has his pursuit of wrongdoing risked entangling his federal office in the city’s political process? If so, does it matter? Is that a good thing? These are hard but fair questions.

The next round of D.C. elections is less than a year away, and several of the city’s most important offices will be up for grabs. The April 1 primary races include contests for mayor and D.C. Council chairman, as well as two at-large council seats and representatives of wards 1, 3, 5 and 6.

Unless Machen’s investigation of corruption is resolved well ahead of those contests, the federal probe could affect the primaries. The specter of FBI agents and federal prosecutors hovering over the political process could inhibit campaign activities. Residents don’t want to throw away a vote by backing a candidate who might end up in jail. Uncertainty can have a chilling effect.

Justice Department protocols urge prosecutors to avoid federal investigations becoming a factor in elections. But they could become just that if, say, the federal probes of Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign and the D.C. Lottery contract remain active even as Gray and council members seek reelection. Gray has not said whether he will run again, but he has one declared opponent, D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). Two other Democratic council members — Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) — have indicated they might throw their hats into the ring as well.

The prospect of Gray or other politicians being indicted or forced out of office is probably sufficient inducement for some to jump into the upcoming races. That, however, makes the feds a factor in the elections.

Perhaps this is an unavoidable outcome. The wheels of justice shouldn’t cease turning because of an election. Machen’s commitment to root out corruption should trump any desire to have an election free from federal influence.

His investigation into corruption in the 2010 Democratic mayoral campaign was justified. And he has results to show for it. Three aides from the Gray campaign pleaded guilty to doing things that they ought not to have done. Longtime Gray friend Jeanne Clarke Harrispleaded guilty to participating in an illegal “shadow campaign” that funneled $650,000 in unreported contributions to fund Gray’s campaign. Howard Brooks pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about unreported payments to a minor candidate, Sulaimon Brown, to remain in the race to harass then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. A third campaign official, Thomas Gore, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and obstruction of justice in the federal probe.

It’s obvious from Machen’s public statements that his investigation won’t end with these three. Nor should it.

As The Post’s Mike DeBonis and Nikita Stewart reported, Machen said at the time of Harris’s guilty plea that the mayoral race was “compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash.

“Today’s plea confirms the sad truth that many of us have long feared: that the 2010 mayoral election was corrupted by a massive infusion of cash that was illegally concealed from the voters of the District,” he continued.

Still left to be determined: Who provided the money for the “shadow campaign”? Who were the illegal “straw donors”? What did Gray know, and when did he know it? And much more.

The full scope of Machen’s investigation is not publicly known. But this much is clear: The political process would be served if Machen’s probes could be completed and, if any criminal charges are to be brought, they are filed well before next year’s elections — preferably in 2013.

Justice might also be served.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.