D.C. candidate Gray wants U.S. to probe alleged vote-buying by Fenty campaign

By Tim Craig and Ann E. Marimow
Friday, September 10, 2010; B05

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said Thursday that he will ask federal law enforcement officials to investigate reports that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's reelection campaign offered young adults jobs in exchange for their votes, a potential violation of federal election law.

Gray and his advisers say they decided to turn to the FBI because they are increasingly worried about the integrity of the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

"We are deeply concerned," Gray said at a news conference in front of his campaign headquarters in Chinatown. "There are very few things that are more sacrosanct, sacred, than the voting process, and we want to make sure it's fully preserved in the city."

The FBI referred questions to the Justice Department's criminal division, which declined to comment.

On Wednesday night, WJLA-TV (ABC 7) aired a story in which three young adults said representatives of the Fenty campaign offered them $100-a-day jobs from Sept. 4 through the Sept. 14 primary if they agreed to be driven to an early voting location to cast their ballots for Fenty. The young adults said that they voted for Fenty but that the campaign did not follow through on its promise.

During an interview on camera, Rudolph Williams, 19, called a phone number he allegedly was told to contact about the job. The call, according to WJLA, was answered by someone the Fenty campaign confirmed worked at its headquarters.

"I had plenty of calls like this today," the campaign worker said on the call. "And they had to stop at a certain number because they had too many people."

Emerging from a pep rally with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to congratulate the high-performing School Without Walls Senior High School, Fenty was surrounded Thursday by reporters who pressed him about the allegations of vote-buying.

"We do extensive training. We let everybody know that's prohibited," Fenty said. "If there's an allegation that someone has made a mistake, bring it to us, and we'll take action."

But the mayor said his campaign was hindered from following up on the story because there was no specific information about the identity of the alleged driver from his campaign.

Under the campaign's "Code of Ethical Conduct," Fenty said, all volunteers and paid workers for the campaign are required to sign an ethics statement that prohibits them from offering or providing "anything of value to a person to encourage or induce that person to register to vote."

Top advisers to the Gray campaign said the WJLA stories bolstered their fears that the Fenty campaign was using part of the mayor's $5 million war chest to buy votes. "It is our belief, based upon information we have received, it's a widespread practice," said Lloyd Jordan, a senior Gray adviser overseeing his get-out-the-vote and legal strategy. "Not only are they using students, they are going to the homeless."

On Saturday, the Gray campaign notified the Board of Elections and Ethics after one of its poll watchers at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center, an early-voting site in Northeast Washington, said a young Fenty supporter told her that he was paid $100 to vote.

Rokey W. Suleman II, executive director of the election board, said his office will investigate any complaint and refer its findings to federal authorities. "We are very concerned, and we take every allegation of fraud very seriously," Suleman said, noting that the board has set up a hotline at 202-727-2194 to field complaints.

Under federal law, someone convicted of paying or accepting payment for registering to vote or voting can be fined as much as $10,000 or imprisoned for as long as five years. In July, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation to make it a local crime to buy or sell votes. But Fenty used a pocket veto to block the legislation early in August, arguing that the council should not change election law so close to the primary.

Election lawyer Brett Kappel said that, in general, the Justice Department probably would not launch a criminal investigation in response to one allegation. "These types of errors are pretty common," he said.

The controversy over allegations of vote-buying has been building since May, when some Gray supporters accused Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten of paying young people to vote for Fenty in a Ward 8 straw poll. Although an FBI agent questioned some Ward 8 activists about the controversy, it was unclear whether a formal investigation had been launched.

Moten, a Fenty strategist who is working to increase turnout, strongly denied the allegations. In an interview Thursday, Moten said the latest accusations against the campaign are "just politics."

"Instead of them running a campaign on the facts, on what they're doing for the city, they're running a straight negative campaign," Moten said of Gray supporters.

The controversy continues a string of bad news for the mayor's reelection bid.

On Wednesday, two polls were released that showed him trailing Gray by seven and 11 points.

On Friday, George Washington University will release its "Supermarket Poll," which interviewed 675 Democratic voters at 27 grocery stores from Aug. 25 to Sept. 5. The poll, conducted by students and Bernard Demczuk, a GWU official, shows Gray leading Fenty 51 percent to 38 percent, with rounding.

Demczuk has accurately predicted the winner of every mayoral race since 1994.

Also Thursday, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance initiated a formal investigation into fundraising reports from council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) for two previous elections.

Former council member Vincent Orange, Brown's rival in the Democratic primary contest to succeed Gray as council chairman, has alleged irregularities. Brown denies any wrongdoing.

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