August 16, 2013

Let’s not bite our tongues: Vernon Hawkins has been bad news for decades. He is part of that despicable element of the old guard in the D.C. government and local politics that has burdened us with a culture marked by cronyism, nepotism and fraud. So it’s not surprising that he is the sixth person ensnared in U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen’s sweeping investigation into public corruption in the District.

Hawkins, a former senior government executive-cum-political operative, pleaded guilty to lying to federal officials. He had denied trying to persuade a caterer to leave town to avoid providing information in the probe. His plea has helped define more clearly the connections among Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), his 2010 campaign and millionaire businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.

Although neither Gray nor Thompson has been charged with a crime, it’s become increasingly difficult for residents to believe that the mayor was unaware of the illegal activities that occurred during his 2010 campaign, including a $653,000 “shadow” operation allegedly financed by Thompson. Many in the city are wondering what will happen to Gray, whether Machen will charge Thompson and whether he will use the federal RICO statute.

I asked D.C. lawyers and former prosecutors who have been closely observing the process and who have experience with the issues involved to offer their best guesses regarding the trajectory of the case from here. Their views are based not on inside information but on what is in the media and on the public record in court proceedings. They didn’t mince words:

“There is plenty of evidence to indict Mr. Thompson,” argued Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney and founding partner of diGenova and Toensing.

“The discussion in the U.S. attorney’s office isn’t about if, it’s about what to charge Thompson with,” said A. Scott Bolden, a former prosecutor and partner with Reed Smith who has been involved with several high-profile corruption cases.

Ronald Drake, a local attorney, believes that “there is every reason to go after [Thompson] under RICO.” The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was initially used against members of the Mafia. But federal prosecutors also have relied on it in cases involving public corruption. Individuals can be charged if they were involved in any two of about 30 offenses, such as obstruction of justice, money laundering, fraud and bribery. They may not have committed the crime themselves but ordered others to participate in criminal activity. Normally, the focus is not necessarily on the criminal act but on the pattern of behavior.

“There is no problem at all with pattern here,” Drake said. Court documents and statements provided by Hawkins and others suggest that Thompson may have engaged in illegal campaign finance activities since 2000 in multiple jurisdictions. There are also allegations that he routinely encouraged others to do the same, using employees, relatives and friends to secretly funnel contributions to candidates.

Machen’s office declined to comment. Thompson’s lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan, was out of town, but his secretary told me that, as a rule, he does not comment on cases.

Bolden said he doubted that RICO would be used. “Most prosecutors like to keep it simple.” He said it appears that a standard pyramid-prosecution model is being used, one that starts at the base and moves up until the “head is cut off.”

“Machen seems to be three-quarters to the top,” Bolden said.

But, diGenova asserted, “it’s highly unlikely Mr. Thompson will go to trial. I think he’ll probably work out some deal. In order to make a deal for himself, he would have to testify against the mayor.”

Cooperation appears to have been a critical element of all of the guilty pleas thus far. That’s the case with Hawkins, said his attorney, William Lawler III, who said his client is a “a person of tremendous integrity and great values.”

“He made a mistake; he acknowledged that and took responsibility,” Lawler said. “This is an isolated incident, and it shouldn’t define him.”

It doesn’t. His history does.

A key figure in the shadow operation, Hawkins probably has a lot to tell. He certainly knows Gray. They have been friends since the 1990s, when the mayor was the director of the Department of Human Services.

After Marion Barry returned for the fourth time to the mayoral suite, he selected Hawkins as DHS’s new director. The appointment smelled of payback for the help Hawkins had provided in resurrecting the political career of the former convict, including organizing that famous caravan from the District to a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

Hawkins may have been great at directing cars and buses up the interstate, but he was a disaster as the DHS director. There were ghost employees on the payroll; some cronies were paid outside the normal process with handwritten checks. The foster-care system became even more dysfunctional, and elderly residents in city-funded nursing homes were abused and neglected.

Meanwhile, social service providers had to fight to get paid. Andrew Brimmer, then chairman of the financial control board, demanded Hawkins’s resignation. Barry fought the effort before eventually acquiescing.

Anyone concerned about Hawkins’s political image or the well-being of D.C. residents would have kept away from such a tainted man. Gray did just the opposite. In 2004, 2006 and 2010, he embraced Hawkins, bringing him deeper into his political circle. The rest is a sad and sordid story, proving that the past is forever prologue.

Whether Thompson ultimately brings down Gray or not, one thing is certain, said diGenova: “The mayor is going to be unelectable.”

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com