The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Fear not, D.C. straw donors

Jeanne Clarke Harris leaves the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington in 2012 after pleading guilty to conspiring to evade campaign-finance limits. (Jabin Botsford for The Washington Post)

Who said you can’t get away with corrupt politics in the District of Columbia? The now winding-down, multi-year campaign corruption probe into illegal political contributions to city candidates proves you can.

To be sure, as The Post’s Ann E. Marimow reported on Friday, the final major figure in the unlawful financing scheme for Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, Jeanne Clarke Harris, was sentenced for her role in helping city-made businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson evade campaign limits and obstruct the federal investigation. Harris now joins Thompson and a handful of other people convicted and sentenced for their roles in helping to funnel money into the off-the-books funding of Gray’s mayoral mayoral bid.

But those high-profile convictions deflect attention from the number of foot soldiers who have been engaged in the stealth war against clean elections in our city. They remain at large, free to scoff at the law and the authorities who should have taken them out of commission.

I’m referring to the people who knowingly and willingly served as “straw donors,” i.e. individuals used as conduits by someone intent on skirting campaign contribution limits.

How do they operate?

Straw donors are the folks who use someone else’s money to make campaign contributions in their own name. Or they agree to contribute to their own money to a candidate, because they will be reimbursed. Or they get handed a money order for say, $1,000, made payable to a candidate’s political committee, and they fill in their names as the senders.

All three straw-donor acts are illegal under federal and D.C. law.

And the illegal Gray campaign-financing scheme was aided and abetted by many straw donors.

Don’t take my word for it. Convicted and sentenced Harris said so herself.

As part of her plea deal with prosecutors, Harris admitted soliciting campaign contributions from “16 family members, employees, and friends” totaling $38,000. Harris told prosecutors that Thompson reimbursed her and that she, in turn, reimbursed the others for their contribution.

Those 16 people are cheats and liars, just like their recruiter. But unlike Harris, Thompson and the other convicted offenders, the straw donors have not been held accountable for their corruption of our political culture.

What’s more, Harris apparently wasn’t the only operative with a stable of straw donors. Contributions to various federal and local political campaigns were made over the years by certain employees of Thompson and his firm, as well as family members and their friends, at Thompson’s direction. And he reimbursed them, using his own or corporate funds.

Straw donors have played a corrosive role in D.C. elections, operating free from penalty — and, to this day, unbothered in the least by the federal corruption probe.

I spoke with a federal official familiar with prosecutorial decision-making in such cases who advised on background that criminal charges against straw donors are exceedingly rare because of the “knowing and willful” standard that the government has to prove.

Wesley Williams, public affairs manager for the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, which regulates campaign operations and spending, responded to my query about OFC enforcement action against straw donors by email: “Now that the U.S. Attorney and the courts have concluded the investigative and sentencing phase of Jeffrey Thompson and related cases, the OCF will proceed to conclude its own investigations regarding Jeffrey Thompson and the related investigations of Eugenia Harris, Stanley Straughter, Lee Calhoun, Kelvin Robinson and Jeff Smith.  These matters have been scheduled for Show Cause proceedings to determine whether fines should be imposed for violations of the Campaign Finance Act.”

Straw donors, fear not. The convicted, not you, are on the campaign finance office’s radar. You can get away with corrupt politics in our fair city.