The mayor's chief of staff, Kelvin J. Robinson, urged a group of appointed city officials to contribute money to the mayor's reelection campaign in August despite a federal prohibition against D.C. government employees' soliciting political funds, said several officials who attended the meeting.
The request came during an after-work meeting of more than 200 appointees of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) at the Washington Convention Center, said five sources who heard the appeal and described it on the condition of anonymity.
Williams also attended the event, a combination political rally and information session on how to abide by the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity by federal and D.C. government employees.
Robinson, 41, was one of several speakers and urged the mayoral appointees to support the Williams campaign by making financial contributions, sources said.
The sources differed in their recollections of the exact wording Robinson used, but two recalled him saying, "Get out your checkbooks."
Some of the sources, who did not want to speak publicly for fear that their professional relationships might be damaged, said Robinson noted that he already had contributed to the campaign, which was facing new urgency because of the mayor's decision several days earlier to mount an expensive write-in bid for renomination. The Board of Elections and Ethics denied Williams a spot on the Democratic primary ballot because he submitted thousands of fraudulent nominating petitions. He was later fined a record $250,000 for the infractions.
Robinson, who was asked Friday about his comments at the August meeting, replied by e-mail last night, "If anyone thought that I was soliciting campaign donations at that meeting or any other meeting, they certainly misinterpreted what I said." He did not elaborate and did not respond to further inquiries about what he said at the event.
Mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock said Williams was unavailable for comment on the matter. He is on a four-day vacation to Puerto Rico with his wife.
The mayor ended up breaking city records by spending $2.6 million on his campaign, with the help of contributions from some of the officials who heard Robinson's appeal at the convention center. But campaign officials also expressed frustration that more city employees did not give money to the campaign. Several of those who recalled Robinson's comments said they did not feel coerced to contribute.
The Hatch Act says city employees may not "knowingly solicit, accept, or receive a political contribution from any person." A political contribution is defined as "any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value, made for any political purpose."
Federal personnel regulations interpret the law to mean that covered city and federal employees cannot ask for financial contributions for political campaigns and cannot ask subordinate employees to volunteer their time to campaigns. They are free to volunteer their own time and give their own money to campaigns under the Hatch Act. All D.C. government employees are covered by the Hatch Act except the mayor, members of the D.C. Council and the recorder of deeds.
The penalties for violations range from a 30-day suspension without pay to termination.
The federal Office of Special Counsel is charged with monitoring compliance with the law, investigating complaints and recommending penalties. Investigations are triggered by complaints and news accounts, said spokeswoman Jane McFarland, who said she could not make a public comment about a particular incident unless a disciplinary action had been taken.
Hatch Act disciplinary actions are made public and also are routinely appealed to the three-member Merit Systems Protection Board. That board can give a penalty less than termination, but only by unanimous vote.
Dunbar Senior High School teacher Tom Briggs lost his job in April because he ran for D.C. Council in a partisan election, in violation of the Hatch Act. He was later rehired by the school system, an action that has drawn renewed scrutiny from the Office of Special Counsel.
The episode prompted complaints that the Hatch Act should exempt city employees. Government employees in other cities and in states are not generally covered by the Hatch Act, unless they work for a program that is funded by the federal government.
Ethics and legal experts said the Hatch Act prohibition against government officials' seeking contributions from subordinates is particularly serious. The law was created in 1939 largely to protect government workers from such appeals. Congress updated it in 1993 to give government workers more freedom to participate in politics, but the basic prohibitions remained intact against soliciting campaign contributions and asking subordinates to work on campaigns.
Paul Light, an ethics expert with the Brookings Institution, said he was uncertain whether Robinson's financial appeal violated the Hatch Act, but he said it crossed ethical boundaries.
"Whether it's illegal or not, it's improper," Light said. "It is exactly the kind of activity that the Hatch Act and other anti-corruption statutes are designed to prevent."
The mayor's leading rival in the primary campaign, Anacostia minister Willie F. Wilson, said he often heard complaints from city workers who said they felt pressured to assist the Williams campaign. He had not heard of the financial appeal by Robinson.
"I'm not surprised at all," Wilson said. "It's the kind of thing that the whole administration has been smelling of all along."
The mayor's opponent in the general election, D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), said any money raised from a financial appeal to city employees was unlikely to have changed the outcome of the election. But she said the request for money, which she learned about from a reporter, sounded improper. "It's definitely a no-no, and everybody in government knows that," she said. "It's wrong to use your position and power to make people work or give."
Robinson, who was hired from Florida to become the mayor's chief of staff in August 2001, has faced increased ethical and legal scrutiny in recent weeks because of incidents related to the Washington Teachers' Union scandal.
Federal officials are investigating several former teachers union officials for allegedly misspending more than $5 million of union dues money. News accounts have shown extensive connections between these former officials and the mayor's office.
Among the questionable activities that investigators are probing is a $20,000 party thrown to celebrate Robinson's arrival as chief of staff. It was at the home of Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, then a union official and Williams political confidante, and was paid for by a union credit card. Robinson said he did not know who paid for the party.
Also, Hemphill has accused Robinson of asking her to pay a $1,200 bill for T-shirts from the Democratic National Convention in 2000. She said Robinson expected her to use union money, which she did; Robinson said he expected the money to be paid for out of campaign funds. Hemphill was the co-chairman of the mayor's campaign.
The city's Board of Elections and Ethics ordered Williams to stop using city staff and resources in 2000 to back a proposed charter change.
Staff writer Sewell Chan contributed to this report.