By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008
In the tiny world of people who keep the books for Washington's multitude of political committees, Christopher J. Ward was considered the Republican "gold standard," in the words of a former co-worker -- one of the few people with so much expertise in election law that everyone wanted Ward's services.
The quiet workaholic is listed as treasurer for 83 GOP fundraising committees over the past eight years, according to Federal Election Commission records. In the past five years alone, he oversaw the accounting for committees that raised more than $400 million, $368 million of it at the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to a Washington Post review of those records.
But in late January, Ward, 39, was dismissed as the NRCC announced that it had found financial "irregularities" that "may include fraud." The FBI is investigating what appears to be "a significant amount of money" missing from the House Republican fundraising arm, according to a law enforcement official.
Now the dozens of GOP lawmakers who had clamored for Ward's help are apprehensively poring over his work along with FBI investigators, trying to learn more about the finances he oversaw. Several lawmakers have told Rep. K. Michael Conaway (Tex.), head of the NRCC's auditing subcommittee, that they think money may be missing from their political committees, as well.
Officials told The Post that the NRCC's problems may be more extensive. Republican lawmakers and former committee staff members now allege that Ward fabricated audits and other financial documents for 2003 to 2006, some of which were turned over to a Wachovia Bank branch in McLean in October 2006, when the NRCC borrowed $8 million in last-minute money for congressional campaigns.
Concerned that they could be investigated for possible violations of bank fraud laws, NRCC officials quickly called in the FBI, according to lawmakers and officials with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Wachovia spokeswoman Carrie Ruddy declined to comment. An official at the Federal Election Commission, which could fine the committee if it misstated the NRCC's financial position in monthly reports, also declined to comment.
What may set this investigation apart from previous confirmed cases of political embezzlement is the sheer number of clients Ward served. Drawing on at least 15 years of experience in the complexities of campaign finance laws, he built a reservoir of trust among House Republicans.
"We were told he was the guy that handled all the campaign committees, he was the best," said Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.).
But King said in an interview that he has discovered that Ward paid himself $6,000 in consulting fees from King's political action committee in 2007 -- though King believed that he had shuttered the committee early last year. Upon learning of the NRCC investigation, King said he found that his PAC remained open all of last year. Ward paid himself the fees from King's PAC, which received just three contributions and dispensed one check in 2007, FEC records show.
Ronald Machen, Ward's attorney, declined to comment for this article. Officials for the NRCC and the FBI also would not discuss the investigation.
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In an election year that holds dismal prospects for congressional Republicans, possible financial problems at the cash-strapped NRCC are the last thing the GOP needs.
"The House Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were a dog food, they'd take it off the shelf," said retiring Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who chaired the NRCC for four years earlier this decade.
The recently indicted Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and now imprisoned former congressman Robert W. Ney (Ohio), as well as less controversial lawmakers with minor accounting problems, are among the many members of the GOP delegation who turned to Ward to keep them out of trouble with FEC regulators.
With a wife and three children, a Volvo sport-utility vehicle and a house in Bethesda, Ward was the classic anonymous party bureaucrat.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in political science from what was then Towson State University in 1990, Ward began working in lower-level Republican politics. In the early 1990s, he moved to the compliance side of fundraising dinner committees, the small orbit of staffers who ensure that the aides raising and spending donations do so within federal election laws, according to several former NRCC officials.
By the mid-1990s, he started working full time in the compliance shop of the NRCC, gaining an increasing amount of trust from senior staff members, former co-workers said. Lawmakers facing troubles with the FEC, as Renzi did shortly after he won election in 2002, were steered to Ward for help.
"He was known as a fix-it guy, and he was known for being good at it," said one former NRCC aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Ward was assistant treasurer for the NRCC for half a dozen years, then was promoted to treasurer in 2003, the former officials said, putting him on equal footing with the directors of finance, communications, political operations and legal counsel.
In a system that was designed to prevent fraudulent spending, former aides said that Ward's signature was the last of the four or five required on most major expenditures.
Of the four campaign committees run by House and Senate members, the NRCC raised the largest amount of money by far during the House Republicans' 12-year reign on Capitol Hill. Contributions to the committee totaled more than $368 million during the years Ward was treasurer.
Former co-workers and lawmakers said they saw no signs that Ward would ever be the subject of an investigation like this one. Several suggested that he was a workaholic who was in the office 14 hours on some days.
In 2005, 2006 and most of 2007, the NRCC paid Ward $80,000 to $90,000 a year, but he was one of only two full-time aides there who were allowed to work as outside consultants to lawmakers. That doubled his salary, according to a review of records compiled by CQ MoneyLine, a Web site that tracks campaign finances.
In 2007, for example, Ward's consulting firm collected $100,000 from the 19 PACs and committees for which he served as treasurer. Last October, Ward left the NRCC as treasurer but remained on the payroll as a $7,500-a-month consultant.
The first inkling of trouble came when Conaway took over the NRCC's auditing subcommittee in early 2007. A certified public accountant himself, Conaway said in interviews that he asked for something considered routine in the corporate world: an audit of NRCC books for the previous year by an outside firm and a meeting with the auditors.
"My expectation was that that frank meeting would take three minutes," Conaway said.
Instead, Ward kept putting him off, he said. "Okay, we'll get it for the next meeting, we'll get it for you," Ward said, according to Conaway, who became suspicious of what he described as Ward's "passive aggressive" behavior.
He said Ward avoided the issue for months, until January, when Ward told Conaway that he and GOP lawmakers would meet with auditors. But Ward canceled the meeting 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin.
Republicans called the outside firm and found out that no audits had been done since 2003. After looking at the documents Ward had given them for each year, they determined that he had fabricated them, according to Davis and other officials with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Davis, who now chairs an executive committee that serves as the NRCC board, said that for several years, Ward turned over documents to lawmakers that appeared to be legitimate reviews by an outside firm. They showed accurate balance sheets.
"This guy produced audits, and they looked fine," he said.
In retrospect, Conaway said he wishes he had pushed Ward harder, but added that Ward had become such a trusted presence that he never doubted him or thought to examine his background.
"Like a lot of folks, he had grown into the job, had grown into the trust," Conaway said. "It would have been pretty weird if we had said, 'Let's do a background check.' "
But now the committee is working with the FBI, which it called in as soon as officials realized that the audits may have been faked and that they may have violated bank fraud laws. The NRCC has hired an auditor to review its books and a law firm to oversee an internal investigation.
"Any material misstatement on a bank application is a federal crime," said Stanley Brand, a Washington defense lawyer. He said the committee probably contacted the FBI in an attempt to portray itself as the victim of a crime -- punishable by as much as $1 million in fines and 30 years in prison -- and to inoculate NRCC officials from prosecution.
"They blew the whistle on themselves, which is what you'd do to protect yourself," he said.
Research director Lucy Shackelford and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.