By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) used council stationery to solicit a $20,000 contribution from Comcast to help pay for Democratic Party activities at last year's national convention, prompting questions about whether his actions might have violated campaign finance and ethics laws.
Gray's written request, which apparently resulted in a $10,000 contribution, surfaced as part of an ongoing ethics probe into how the D.C. Democratic State Committee raised money last year and whether those donations were accurately reported to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
Gray and several council members teamed with party leaders to solicit corporate contributions to help pay for the District delegation's activities in Denver, according to documents uncovered by the city Office of Campaign Finance.
In the letter, dated Aug. 18, 2008, Gray said the delegation would be pressing for D.C. voting rights.
"As you might imagine, conducting the kind of weeklong effort required and desired will require a very substantial financial investment," Gray wrote to Kathy Etemad Hollinger, then Comcast's director of government relations. "The budget for the week of activities exceeds $200,000. In that regard, I request support from Comcast in the amount of $20,000."
D.C. law imposes a $5,000 limit on contributions by a single donor to a political committee during an election cycle. The campaign finance office has stated in recent audit reports that the Democratic Party should return several donations to its Democratic convention account that exceeded the $5,000 limit.
Gray noted in the letter that he was writing on behalf of himself as well as council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).
On Oct. 31, a month after the convention ended, Comcast sent the Democratic committee a $10,000 check, according to a copy of the canceled check. One of the campaign finance office audit reports called for the party to return $5,000 to Comcast.
The check was credited to Gray and Thomas on a Democratic Party spreadsheet, according to internal party records obtained by the campaign finance office. The Cable Television PAC also donated $5,000 to the party on behalf of Thomas and Gray.
In an interview Tuesday, Gray said he was "trying to be helpful" to the state committee. He said he did not view the letter as a political solicitation because the committee was trying to raise money to promote D.C. voting rights at the convention.
In his letter to Comcast, Gray wrote that the convention gave the District "an unprecedented opportunity" to promote the issue.
Gray said he had no intention of violating any rules. "I viewed it as an opportunity to work with other states to promote the District of Columbia."
Thomas said Tuesday that the money was raised to help defray delegates' travel expenses.
Hollinger, now head of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture & Television Development, referred a request for comment to Comcast. Officials at Comcast said they were reviewing the matter late Tuesday.
Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee, on Tuesday questioned whether Gray violated ethics laws stating that no District government resources can be used to support or oppose a candidate for elected office.
"District residents have a council chairman who feels comfortable and sees no wrongdoing steering campaign contributions with taxpayer funded resources," said Craney, who is calling on D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles to investigate.
Gray's involvement adds a twist to the campaign finance office probe into how the party committee kept track of the money it raised for convention activities.
After the party failed to account for its spending in Denver in its campaign finance reports last year, the office scoured bank records and other information to try to find out what happened to the money.
The office issued a preliminary audit in August stating that the committee failed to accurately report $158,245 in donations between January 2007 and January 2009. The committee also failed to report 19 expenditures totaling $85,000, the report stated.
Party leaders counter that they did not think they had to report the money because it was used at the convention and not on a local campaign.
Last week, however, the office issued another interim report that concluded the money raised in the convention account "is indistinguishable as a separate entity," so the party needed to report it and abide by all campaign finance laws.
The office has so far determined that several elected officials were involved in raising money for the convention that should be refunded by the party.
Campaign accounts of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) wrote $10,000 checks last year to help finance the party's activities at the convention. A law firm gave $10,000, credited on the spreadsheet to council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).
The board has also asked that the committee return contributions in excess of $5,000 to the donors.