D.C. Democratic committee struggling amid money problems, infighting

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

The District is one of the bluest jurisdictions in the nation -- Barack Obama garnered 92 percent of the city's vote in the 2008 presidential race -- but if the D.C. Democratic State Committee doesn't start raising money fast, it's going to go broke.

The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance recommended Wednesday that the election board fine the committee $18,000 for failing to report $172,000 in donations it collected to pay for party expenses at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008.

The local party, which disputes that it had to report the donations to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, was also ordered to refund $30,000 in contributions that exceeded legal limits. But the committee has only $21,000 in the bank, according to Dan Wedderburn, the party's treasurer.

Leaders of the local party, which is in turmoil because of infighting, say they will challenge the recommended fine when the issue lands before the Board of Elections and Ethics. Still, the committee's money woes are embarrassing to some activists, who are calling for the ouster of Chairman Anita Bonds.

"What is going on in the D.C. Democratic State Committee is just obscene," said committee member Philip Pannell, who is critical of party leaders and filed a complaint. "It's tragic to basically see the destruction of the infrastructure of the D.C. Democratic Party. Here we are in a Democratic bastion, here in the nation's capital, and we don't even have an office."

Bonds, who noted that the party was broke when she took over three years ago, vowed that it will rebound quickly, even if it is fined. "If we have to raise the money, we will be raising the money," said Bonds, adding that only a few detractors are calling for her ouster. "We will be asking for support. The party will be solvent."

The recommended fine represents the latest fallout from a decision by party leaders to raise tens of thousands of dollars so delegates and party activists could flock to Denver to watch Obama be nominated.

Under District law, all political committees involved in local politics have to "disclose the total sum of all receipts by or for such committee" and all expenditures to the Board of Elections and Ethics. When raising money for local political purposes, there is a $5,000 limit on contributions by a single donor to a political committee during an election cycle.

Bonds and other party leaders, including D.C. Council members, raised money from individuals, unions and corporations for the party's convention activities that was not reported to the election board or the Federal Election Commission. The committee also accepted at least seven donations that exceeded the $5,000 limit.

Bonds said the committee did not feel the contributions had to be reported because they were used exclusively at the convention, which included a major campaign to promote D.C. voting rights.

"All the expenses were used to pay for the delegation," said Bonds, noting that the Democratic State Committee recently approved a resolution supporting her position. "The monies were spent on activities that everyone could partake in."

Pannell, who said committee members did not get a full accounting of how the money was spent, accused party leaders of establishing a "slush fund."

"It really is quite sad that you would have the chair of any political party anywhere in the United States thinking it's acceptable and rational to raise considerable amounts of money and feel the receipts and expenditures do not need to be reported," he said.

In its ruling, the Office of Campaign Finance sided with Pannell, finding that the committee failed to report $152,345 that had been deposited into a PNC Bank branch and $19,974.29 in a Independence Federal Savings Bank account.

In a statement last night, the party stated: "At no time has the committee, its leadership or members been accused of embezzlement or misappropriation of party funds."

The tension within the Democratic committee contrasts with the relatively smooth operation of the D.C. Republican Committee, which runs a full-time office and plans to field a record number of council candidates this year.

The D.C. Republican Committee, which has 28,000 members compared with the Democrats' 316,000, has about $57,000 in two accounts, according to party officials.

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