Like the “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate, which eventually toppled a president, the Sulaimon Brown affair has metastasized into a wide-ranging scandal that threatens to paralyze District politics and government.
Who would have thought a year ago that a bunch of unproven allegations by an oddball, minor mayoral candidate would have such far-reaching impact?
A real danger now is that the four-year administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) could end up being a lost term, with little or no progress on strategic goals such as improving education or jobs.
Yes, the city is still picking up trash and issuing driver’s licenses. That’s important. But it’s hard to see the mayor and D.C. Council accomplishing anything significant when they’re preoccupied defending themselves in a mushrooming federal investigation into campaign finance irregularities.
“It’s a huge distraction. It does slow down the work of the city,” council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said.
Then there’s the possibility that Gray won’t even last four years, or that other politicians might fall. The stakes have risen dramatically this month as it’s emerged that U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen and a federal grand jury were actively probing campaign contributions throughout the government by influential District businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.
Nobody’s been charged, and the mayor and council members have denied wrongdoing. But Thompson has contributed so much money to so many politicians for so many years that virtually the entire political class is nervous.
In addition, Thompson’s companies have numerous District contracts that have the potential for inappropriate or illegal interactions with elected officials who have oversight of those businesses.
He owns a health-services company that treats Medicaid patients under the District government’s largest single contract, worth as much as $300 million a year. He is co-founder of an accounting firm that has worked for the chief financial officer, school system and inspector general.
Thompson’s generous campaign contributions have given him unusual access to elected officials, according to numerous reports, and he has not been shy about using it.
“What I know is Jeff Thompson can pick up the phone and he will never be ignored by anybody on the political side,” said an executive in the District health-care industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of offending him.
“I don’t’ know if he’s been any more egregious than anyone else [about wielding influence]. I think the FBI just looked at the number of contracts and decided to hunt him down,” the executive said.
Machen, like any self-respecting prosecutor, will be pushing to see if a grand jury inquiry into campaign finance violations leads ultimately to more compelling cases of public corruption.
“This could bring down the entire government,” said a council member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid being publicly linked to the scandal.
In a bombshell first reported by Tom Sherwood of WRC (Channel 4), and confirmed by The Post, sources said Gray personally received as much as $100,000 in donor checks from Thompson and his associates in June 2010.
That would be okay if all the donors were properly reported and stayed within maximum contribution limits – technically $2,000 per individual for a mayoral candidate. Ultimately, the grand jury will decide whether anything more suspicious happened.
Gray could be vulnerable if he knew, or should have known, that rules were broken. Neither the mayor nor Thompson was commenting.
The probe now extends well beyond the mayor. The grand jury blanketed the Wilson Building with subpoenas last week asking a number of council members’ campaigns for records going back nearly a decade about their dealings with Thompson.
Just assembling the files is a burden. One council member said his stack of Thompson records was two feet high.
Machen, whose muteness rivals his aggressiveness, hasn’t explained what triggered the subpoenas. However, based on available information, it seems reasonable to assume that the trail began with Sulaimon Brown’s charge that the mayor’s campaign paid him cash and promised him a job in return for waging dirty tricks on behalf of Gray’s 2010 campaign.
Apparently, Brown’s allegations led Machen and the grand jury to look into Gray’s fund-raising. That led to Thompson, whose house and office were raided by the FBI on March 2. That led to the subpoenas of the council members.
The only way for the District to wrest anything positive from this whole sorry tale would be to harness public outrage to pass and enforce genuine campaign finance reforms. That would compensate a bit for losing several years of effective political leadership.
To read previous columns by McCartney, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.