Opinion writer

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has become a central figure in the upcoming D.C. mayor’s race, and that is not a good thing. With the Democratic primary only six months away, Machen, the prosecutor of D.C. corruption, is perched between District voters and the ballot box. It’s not where the federal government belongs.

Nevertheless, the federal presence raises the question of whether Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) will seek reelection in the face of the probe. He’s even tantalizing the media with hints of running again.

Another question being whispered in parts of the community: “Will Vince make it?” Put another way, will the mayor emerge unscathed from Machen’s investigation of the 2010 Democratic primary campaign?

Gray has not been charged with any crime, and he has denied any wrongdoing. But Machen is not done yet. Will he charge Gray — and, if so, with what?

The question is unavoidable.

Machen has declared the 2010 mayoral campaign to be “compromised” and “corrupt.” To date, four of Gray’s close friends and top campaign aides — Howard L. Brooks, Thomas W. Gore, Jeanne Clarke Harris and Vernon E. Hawkins — have pleaded guilty to charges associated with the primary. And businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, who allegedly financed a secret $653,800 “shadow campaign” for Gray, is the subject of an extensive, nationwide FBI investigation.

Little wonder that Machen’s headline-making investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign has become a central feature of the mayoral campaign already under way. Little wonder, too, that many voters, in light of the guilty pleas, are left wondering whether the mayor is in Machen’s cross hairs.

Imagine the chilling effect of that thought on potential campaign workers, volunteers and contributors. Imagine too, voters going to the polls with that concern still in mind.

Unfortunately, District voters have been placed in this position before. The results haunt many people to this day.

Four years ago, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) was being hammered by D.C. Council members who charged that multimillion-dollar contracts had been awarded to firms with ties to his administration.

Ironically, Fenty’s chief critics were Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) and Kwame Brown (D-At Large), both of whom subsequently were forced out of office and now bear the title “convicted felon.”

Fenty’s principal opponent in the primary, Gray — then the council chairman — had a field day lambasting Fenty as the leader of a “pay to play” administration that “rigged contracts” and engaged in “shady deals.”

At Thomas’s urging, the council appointed a high-profile attorney, Robert P. Trout, to conduct an investigation into the contract awards. Thomas said the investigation would be wrapped up before the primary election. It ran into the next year.

Dogged with corruption charges — as well as criticism of his style of governance — Fenty was rejected by the voters in the primary. The following March, three months after Gray was installed as mayor, the Trout report was released. Its verdict: “Our investigation uncovered no wrongdoing on the part of the mayor.” By that time, the damage was done. So, too, was Fenty.

Is the city headed down that path again?

Machen has the answer.

The U.S. attorney has broad discretion. He certainly isn’t obliged to serve the cause of justice with the District’s election timetable in mind. His duty is to fairly and impartially pursue criminal wrongdoing, carefully following the facts and evidence where ever they lead him.

Machen, in the name of the federal government, gets to decide whether and what charges should be brought against those involved in the 2010 campaign corruption scandal.

So now what?

In response to my inquiry about the investigation and D.C. elections, William Miller, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, wrote in an e-mail this week: “The investigation into the 2010 mayoral election has led to four guilty pleas and is continuing.”

Apparently there’s no stopping them now.

If Machen is considering bringing charges against the mayor, he must have sufficient evidence to support a conviction — enough to win at trial against some of the city’s most skilled attorneys. And how well would his witnesses hold up in court?

Making no judgment about either Gray’s involvement or Machen’s intentions, it’s worth noting that the four defendants who have pleaded guilty to 2010 offenses have amply demonstrated their propensity to break the law. Two of them — Gore and Hawkins — have admitted lying to the FBI. Would a D.C. jury regard them as credible prosecution witnesses, if it comes to that?

Thompson’s legal fight with prosecutors over seized documents may have slowed the investigation. But the question remains: “Will Vince Gray seek reelection?”

If he does, voters will soon have to make up their minds.

So, too, should the U.S. attorney.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.