A political action committee backed by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) will shut down, organizers said, and the committee will refund hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions, an acknowledgment that the fundraising behemoth has become a political liability for the mayor.
The committee, dubbed FreshPAC, after Bowser’s “fresh start” campaign slogan, was the first PAC in District politics so closely aligned with a sitting mayor and created by her former campaign treasurer. Through unlimited contributions, Bowser supporters had quickly raised more than $300,000 and had a goal of collecting $1 million by year’s end to further her agenda, beginning by electing Bowser allies to the D.C. Council next year.
Shuttering the PAC amounts to a surprising and swift capitulation for allies to Bowser, who had dug in defending the right for the group to raise money. But even returning the money may not quell concerns that the PAC raised about pay-to-play politics in her year-old administration.
The mayor is on a trip to China with a corporate delegation whose members have given or who have ties to more than $40,000 in PAC contributions. Three days before she departed, Bowser gave her most forceful defense of the PAC, telling residents at a crowded community meeting that “everything they are doing is according to the law, just like if you hear a presidential candidate that has a PAC. They are doing it according to the law.”
That same day, however, Bowser’s office released a list of business leaders accompanying Bowser on the trip to China that fueled questions about the closeness of the relationship between her administration and PAC donors.
PAC Treasurer Ben Soto said news coverage of the trip was “a factor” in a decision reached late Tuesday evening to close down the PAC.
“We had planned to fight it through. We were getting a lot of opposition from the media and others, but it had been set up in full compliance with the law,” Soto said in an interview. “In spite of that fact, it seemed like it became a really big distraction for the mayor. And when it became that big of a distraction . . . it went against everything we were trying to do by setting up the PAC, which was to help the mayor.”
The Washington Post reported Saturday that two business leaders accompanying Bowser — developer Buwa Binitie and health-care executive Babu Stephen — had contributed $10,000 each to the pro-Bowser PAC. A third, David Franco, has not contributed, but he is seeking investment in China for a project that has a silent investor who is the single-largest contributor to the PAC. Bowser also nominated Franco to the city’s powerful zoning commission.
Under District election law, the PAC cannot coordinate with Bowser, and Soto said the decision to disband the group was not discussed with the mayor. But Soto said “even in Beijing” he was sure the mayor would quickly learn of the decision.
The end of FreshPAC, however, may not bring an end to questions for Bowser, who beat former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) last year by promising a clean break from years of corruption allegations that lingered over city hall.
In the seven months since FreshPAC was created, three of Bowser’s nominees to boards and commissions contributed to the PAC within weeks of their confirmations. The firm of another campaign volunteer donated to the PAC after winning a $500,000 city contract for public relations work. And more than a dozen developers and health-care companies now bidding on lucrative city contracts have contributed $10,000 or more each.
The PAC also created a rift with some natural allies on the D.C. Council. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) last month accused the mayor of letting FreshPAC threaten to turn the District headquarters into “Tammany Hall.”
A majority of the council also co-sponsored a bill to restrict PAC spending after Soto publicly pronounced that the group would use money it raised to target council members next year who do not “think in the same way” as the mayor. Several council members said they viewed the announcement as an attempt to intimidate lawmakers who are up for reelection to rubber stamp the mayor’s requests.
Despite its closure, the mayor and her allies may also yet face questions of whether there was any coordination between the PAC and Bowser and her staff.
Soto, the mayor’s longtime campaign treasurer, is not known for leaning on political contributors, according to several people involved in her past campaigns. That work in Bowser’s campaigns has often been left to members of her finance committee, several of whom now work in D.C. government.
In interviews with five people who each contributed $10,000 to the PAC, no one named Soto or anyone else who publicly worked with the PAC when asked who solicited the contribution.
“I kind of heard it through the grapevine” that $10,000 is what the PAC wanted, said Joel Freedman, head of Calif.-based Paladin Health Care, which is deeply involved in a new partnership between Howard University and United Medical Center in Southeast.
Questioned last week at a D.C. Council hearing about who asked for his $10,000 contribution to the PAC, Binitie also said he couldn’t remember: “I do not recall,” he said under questioning from Cheh.
Speaking to residents at Park View last week, Bowser also said she understood FreshPAC had set a cap on individual contributions of $10,000. Such a self-imposed cap has not been reported by any news organization, and some donors have contributed that amount multiple times.
Bowser made the point in trying to explain how FreshPAC was nothing like a super PAC, which can take unlimited donations from undisclosed sources.
“I understand that the FreshPAC actually did put a limit on how much it would raise, and that limit was 10,000,” Bowser said.
The mayor has twice appeared at fundraisers for the PAC, and another was planned for early December to push toward $1 million. Soto on Tuesday contended the figure would have still been within reach if the PAC had remained operational.
But the organization would disband, he said, and, as soon as possible, return contributions on a pro-rated basis. The PAC spent more than $30,000 on polling and other voter information early in the year.
Soto pushed back strongly on any pay-to-play connotations with the PAC, noting that similar groups have formed in Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere to support mayors.
“I stand by my assertion that our donors are people who believe in and wanted to support the mayor’s agenda,” Soto said. “I dispute the notion that contributors gave because they expected something in return or that the mayor would ever even entertain such thought.”
Speaking to Park View residents last week, Bowser challenged residents to find any instance in which somebody questioned that a decision she made was in the best interest of a contributor and not the city.
“That’s how I proceed,” she said. “Any questions you have about anyone who has ever contributed to me, you will find it in the public, with the sunlight on it, and that’s that.”