March 16, 2012

Some D.C. Council members who are scrambling to explain how questionable contributions ended up in their campaign coffers deserve spots on Comedy Central.

Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) was asked about political contributions he received from prominent contractor Jeffrey Thompson, whose office was recently raided by federal investigators. Mendelson told the Washington Times that he trusts donors to be informed about the law and campaign finance regulators to alert him if something is amiss.

Referring to three $1,000 checks — $1,000 is the maximum allowed by law — his campaign committee received on the same day from three businesses closely tied to Thompson, Mendelson said: “I thought that they were different companies.” He also told the Times, “It’s hard for a candidate to know the financial relationships between companies,” adding that donors typically know the law and that “if they get caught, they’re the ones who are breaking the law.” What a hoot!

When The Post’s editorial board confronted council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) about campaign contributions he received via money order, he acknowledged that they were “suspicious and questionable” and wrote that the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance “should examine the money orders to determine if they are legal or illegal.” Go Vincent, ye olde buck passer.

I asked Cecily Collier-Montgomery, director of the city’s Office of Campaign Finance, who is responsible for compliance with campaign finance laws. She replied in an e-mail Wednesday: “It is ultimately incumbent upon the candidate, treasurer, and officers of political committees to ensure compliance with the mandates of the Campaign Finance Laws.”

Collier-Montgomery explained what every elected official in the District should know by heart: City laws clearly prescribe the conditions and safeguards political committees must meet to undertake campaign operations.

For example, political committees must have a chairman as well as a treasurer who is authorized to receive and disburse funds. No one can make expenditures without the authorization of the treasurer or chairman.

The law, Collier-Montgomery pointed out, requires the treasurer and the candidate to keep detailed and exact records of contributions, including information on the identity of each person who has made contributions that total $50 or more, and detailed information on expenditures.

With respect to the reports of contributions and expenditures submitted to her office by political committees, Collier-Montgomery stressed: “The treasurer must verify by oath or affirmation, subject to penalties of perjury, that the contents of the report are true, correct, and complete.”

That means, she noted, that the committee is responsible for ensuring it does not accept contributions that, when added to all other contributions received from a single person, exceed legal contribution limits.

All those running for at-large council seats are prohibited from accepting campaign contributions from an individual in excess of $1,000.

So, one might ask, how could any District politician believe it is all right to accept multiple checks for the maximum legal contribution bearing identical signatures? Or to accept money orders with sequential serial numbers, purchased at the same time and location? Both tactics look like moves to avoid contribution limits. Are politicians counting on no one noticing — or, worse still, no one caring?

I asked Mendelson and Orange if they believe candidates and their political committees are responsible for ensuring strict compliance with all applicable campaign finance regulations.

Orange responded by e-mail Wednesday that he didn’t believe the onus was only upon the city’s campaign finance office. Candidates and their committees “must comply and follow the law,” he wrote. He believed his filing with the office was “in accordance with the law,” he said, and he suggested that more auditors and investigators should be added to the campaign finance office’s staff. I certainly agree with that recommendation.

Mendelson, in a telephone conversation Wednesday, also said he believed candidates and their committees are responsible for compliance with campaign finance rules. He maintained that his campaign committee had acted in good faith.

Where the grand jury investigation of D.C. political corruption goes is anyone’s guess.

But if the focus is on contributions and gifts to politicians from Thompson (who hasn’t been charged with anything)and the companies under his control, then the inquiry should be broadened to include many other deep-pocketed donors who may have skirted District laws to give contributions well beyond the legal limits.

Individual donors, as I have written, often do this by creating and using multiple affiliated or subsidiary businesses to funnel contributions to a campaign or candidate.

They and the politicians who accept this ethically dirty money know that they are making a joke of contribution limits. Until now, they have been laughing at the city’s democratic process.

The widening federal probe is wiping that smirk off their faces. Here’s hoping the corrupt are brought to tears.

kingc@washpost.com