As vote nears, controversial backers stealing spotlight from Fenty and Gray

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; B04

Vincent C. Gray and Adrian M. Fenty are closing out their campaigns for mayor by sparring over ethics and integrity, but both candidates are struggling to keep top surrogates from stealing the spotlight in the final days of the campaign.

With five days to go until the election and fresh polls showing Gray maintaining his lead, the mayor and council chairman are trading accusations of "cronyism" and mismanagement in an effort to gain advantage in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

But the conclusion of the primary now partly centers on two men whose names won't be on the ballot -- former mayor and D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Fenty friend and strategist Ronald Moten, the co-founder of Peaceoholics.

Barry, who supports Gray, and Moten serve critical roles for their respective candidates in trying to turn out voters in poor neighborhoods in the city. Yet Moten and Barry's controversial pasts and strong personalities could hinder their favored candidates' closing message.

On Wednesday, Gray summoned reporters and business leaders to a downtown hotel to roll out his platform for "restoring public trust in the mayor's office." Gray called for closer scrutiny of the D.C. public schools budget, a more transparent procurement process, and quicker response times to residents' Freedom of Information Act requests.

Gray's event, however, was overshadowed by Barry, who walked into the room before the chairman spoke and took it upon himself to introduce the candidate. "There is no greater contrast than between Vincent Gray and Adrian Fenty," said Barry, who had supported Fenty's run in 2006.

With his own ethical troubles still fresh on the minds of many voters, Barry's high-profile role at a Gray event to promote "public trust" sent shudders through the campaign. To the dismay of some Gray supporters, Barry has emerged in recent days as one of the public faces of the campaign. On Wednesday, unbeknownst to Gray and his advisers, Barry agreed to debate Moten about the mayor's race on Fox 5's 10 p.m. newscast. After learning of the debate, Gray called Barry and asked him to stress that he was not an official representative of the campaign.

Barry's increased role comes as the Fenty campaign is stepping up efforts to raise questions about Gray's friends and past associations. Gray, who has been friendly with Barry for years but also led the council in censuring him this year for his misuse of earmarks, has been conflicted about whether to distance himself from the former mayor.

"I didn't specifically ask him to be here, but I guess he happened to be in the room at the time the program started, so he spoke," Gray said after his event. "He doesn't speak for the campaign. . . . But he has the right to speak."

Barry, who is expected to play a major role in Gray's final get-out-the-vote push over the weekend, defended his support for the chairman, accusing Fenty and The Washington Post of "stoking fears" by trying to make him an issue in the race.

"It's a red herring, 'cause I'm not running for mayor," said Barry. "It's not that I'm going to be deprived of my right to campaign."

For months, the Fenty campaign has been facing a similar dilemma related to Moten's high-profile role.

Moten, an ex-convict who mentors youths in hopes of preventing violence, has been taking a leading role in helping Fenty attack Gray's record.

On Tuesday, Moten and his attorney went to the Office of Campaign Finance for a preliminary inquiry into complaints that Moten produced pro-Fenty campaign materials without disclosing, as is required by law, who paid for them. OCF spokesman Wesley Williams said the inquiry, first reported by the Washington City Paper, probably will not lead to a formal investigation.

"I needed to be brought in, and the process needed to take place to prove nothing happened," Moten said in an interview. "I am sure, in my eyes, nothing done was wrong."

Bill Lightfoot, Fenty's campaign chairman, stressed that the Peaceoholics founder was a volunteer. "Moten is a very enthusiastic supporter, and he has done certain things that the campaign did not request and did not pay for and did not reimburse him for," Lightfoot said.

A recently launched audit of city contracts with Peaceoholics is also drawing attention away from the campaign.

Since Fenty took office in 2007, Peaceoholics has received more than $10 million in city contracts to help the city deliver social services and fight crime. At the request of council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who supports Gray, D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols has begun an oversight investigation into how Peaceoholics has been spending tax money.

However, Nichols and council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) are accusing Attorney General Peter Nickles of trying to slow the pace of the investigation. Late last month, Nichols requested documents from D.C. police and seven other agencies about the nature of their financial relationship with Peaceoholics, but Nichols -- an independent auditor hired by the council -- said she was alarmed to learn last week that Nickles had demanded that all the documents first be referred to his office.

"He's basically redirected the flow of documentation away from my office to his office so he could screen it and censor whatever he deems we don't need or are entitled to receive, which is contrary to the law," Nichols said. On Wednesday morning, Cheh, who supports Gray, sent Nickles a letter accusing him of violating the law that states the auditor "shall have access to all books, accounts, records, reports, findings and all other papers . . . necessary to facilitate the audit."

"I think this is another example of him covering for the mayor," Cheh said.

Later in the day, Nickles responded to Cheh by stating he has the right to review government documents to prevent sensitive information from being released to the public. Nickles said that by Thursday his office will have turned over all the documents requested by Nichols.

"The assertion we are trying to hold them until after the election is ridiculous," Nickles said.

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