If your boss or a close friend asked you to use his money to make a campaign contribution in your own name, would you do it?
Suppose the person told you that if you agree to contribute your own money to his chosen candidate, you would be reimbursed. Would you do it?
How about if someone handed you a money order for $1,000 made payable to a candidate’s political committee. Would you fill in your name as the sender?
An ironclad rule of campaign finance is that contributions to a candidate or political committee “shall be attributed to the person actually making the contribution.”
Those three acts are illegal under federal and D.C. law. They depict the behavior of a “straw donor” — that is, a person being used as a conduit by someone intent on skirting campaign contribution limits.
The federal investigation into D.C. corruption, spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., has snared some high-profile politicians, with probably more to come.
One of the more disturbing discoveries so far is the existence of regular people who have knowingly become straw donors in D.C. elections. Their corrosive role cannot be played down.
Straw donors are foot soldiers in the war against clean elections. They are cheats and liars, just like the corrupt who recruit them. The District has both.
Jeanne Clarke Harris, who pleaded guilty to engaging in a host of campaign finance violations on behalf of the person federal prosecutors have dubbed “Co-conspirator No. 1” — widely alleged to be businessman Jeffrey Thompson — admitted soliciting campaign contributions from “16 family members, employees and friends” totaling $38,000. Harris told prosecutors that Co-conspirator No. 1 reimbursed her and that she, in turn, reimbursed the others for their contributions.
Her 16 straw donors are still at large.
Pressed by the federal investigation of Thompson, the accounting firm Bazilio Cobb Associates — successor to Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates, where Thompson had been chief executive and the majority shareholder — conducted an internal probe. The company said last month that its review “determined that significant amounts were contributed to various federal and local political campaigns over the last ten years by certain [Thompson, Cobb] employees, family members and their friends at the direction of the former Chief Executive Officer.” The review also revealed that the former chief executive may have violated federal campaign law by giving directions to reimburse, using his own or corporate funds, employees and others who made such contributions.
The number of employees, family members and friends who served as straw donors was not disclosed.
But Lee A. Calhoun, a former Thompson, Cobb employee who recently pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, admitted making campaign contributions in his name and the names of his relatives to conceal that their true source was “Company A” or “Executive A,” according to court documents.
Calhoun said he was reimbursed by Company A. It is unclear whether Calhoun’s relatives were aware that their names were being used. If they were, they kept quiet about it, just as the Jeanne Clarke Harris 16 buttoned their lips.
And therein lies another aspect of the problem: Our political culture encourages silence in the face of wrongdoing.
The federal investigation has revealed that straw donors have played a role in D.C. elections for years. That activity has been aided and abetted by the silence of candidates and campaign treasurers who don’t ask and don’t tell when they come across suspicious contributions.
Consider this: A D.C. Council member turned to Thompson for help with his 2011 campaign and received $26,000 in money orders reportedly collected within three days.
Pressed by reporters, the council member, Vincent Orange, made public 30 money orders and three cashier’s checks collected by Thompson.
“Many of the money orders,” The Post’s Tim Craig reported in March 2012, “came from several companies controlled by Thompson and from donors from both the District and other states, including California and Georgia.”
Four batches of money orders, Craig reported, were purchased from Western Union on the same date and had “sequential order numbers.” Handwriting on several of the money orders appeared to be similar, Craig wrote.
Presented with that package of contributions, what would you have done?
In a March 13, 2012, interview, Orange told The Post: “I started to run, and met with Jeff, and he said he would assist with fundraising efforts.”
“The next report was due March 10,” he said, referring to the Office of Campaign Finance filing deadline. “We received the package. My people entered the information in, to make the midnight deadline.”
Orange, an accountant, said that neither he nor his staff had reason to believe the contributions were “suspicious” because of Thompson’s good reputation.
What would you have done?
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