October 18, 2013

Should he choose to run for reelection, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s three years in office strengthen such a campaign.

It is no easy feat to manage a multibillion-dollar enterprise such as the District of Columbia government. The competing demands on a mayor’s time and energy are enormous.

To that burden, add the presence of 13 D.C. Council members, all of whom believe they can do the job better, and an overbearing Capitol Hill that’s not sold on the idea that the city should fully govern itself. The responsibilities and complexities of the mayor’s job are daunting.

Yet on the matters that count — fiscal stewardship, government management, attentiveness to all eight wards, confident and decisive leadership — Gray has shown a firm grasp of his office.

To be sure, his administration has been far from perfect. Its start was marred by evidence of cronyism — the hiring and firing of little-known Democratic mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown; the award of salaries exceeding established pay caps to 14appointees; and blatant nepotism — three children of administration members hired and forced to resign in one week.

Some of Gray’s top appointments also turned out to be clunkers — former chief of staff Gerri Mason Hall comes to mind. And the D.C. government’s shameful persecution of former lottery contract officer and whistleblower Eric Payne, who filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the city, is a stain on both the mayor and the council. If ever a case cried out for a jury trial or settlement, this is it.

Unfortunately for Gray, there is more to consider in a bid for reelection than just his record as mayor. The events that led to his election in 2010 and his response to evidence of corruption involving his campaign and his political friends are also factors to be weighed.

Viewed through the lens of politics, a deeper shade of Gray emerges.

It boils down to this unavoidable question: Is Vincent Gray honest and ethical?

It’s a fact that the 2010 D.C. mayoral election was compromised by the unsavory behavior of Gray campaign operatives. Theysecretly paid Brown to remain in the Democratic primary to harass Adrian Fenty, who was seeking reelection as mayor. Gray says he did not authorize under-the-table payments to Brown and that he had no knowledge of his campaign paying Brown.

On at least three occasions, the mayor has looked me in the eye and said he was unaware of any payments to Brown.

But in May 2012, Gray campaign consultant Howard L. Brooks and Gray campaign assistant treasurer Thomas W. Gore pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions and payments to Brown to disparage Fenty.

Federal prosecutors have also established that an off-the-books “shadow campaign” was waged on Gray’s behalf in 2010 by at least two of his closest associates.

Jeanne Clarke Harris, Gray’s longtime friend and a consultant to his mayoral campaign, pleaded guilty in July 2012 to participating in an effort to disburse and conceal $653,000 in an effort to elect Gray. And two months ago, Gray’s longtime confidant Vernon E. Hawkins revealed his role in the shadow campaign, allegedly funded by businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson. Hawkins pleaded guilty to making false statements — a felony charge for which, under his plea deal with prosecutors, he can expect to serve up to 16 months in prison.

All these friends; all those guilty pleas.

If and when U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. completes his investigation of D.C. corruption, we may learn the extent of the illegal and unethical activities that have dirtied our city’s political campaigns and sullied our public officials. The corrupting influence of money in city elections is beyond doubt. Has Vincent Gray participated in a conspiracy and lied about it?

A “yes” to either question, or both, would be, pure and simple, a deal-breaker because it would mean Gray broke the public’s trust.

It would wipe out all the good that he has done as mayor. If the answer is yes, the only race Gray should contemplate is to the nearest exit, with the hope that he can outrun the U.S. attorney.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.