Opinion writer

Which candidate accepted an off-the-books five-figure payment in exchange for dropping out of a race for a D.C. political office?

What do authorities make of the items they found on the personal laptop that they confiscated from a D.C. campaign worker? Are the e-mails and other contents as incriminating as the laptop owner claimed in an interview with me this week?

These may be only a few of the questions that federal authorities are working through as they investigate corruption in the District.

It appears that their chief focus is the scads of off-the-books money that deep-pocketed special interests have shelled out over the years to greedy, financially challenged politicians, shadow political campaigns and straw donors — to acquire all of the goodwill, and contracts, that money can buy at city hall.

That may help explain why the 2009 award of the $38 million, five-year D.C. Lottery contract is being flyspecked by the feds.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who was an at-large member of the council when the contract was awarded, was the lone legislator to vote against the decision. “I can’t help but think,” he told reporters at the time,“that the fix was on.”

Did money or anything of value change hands in connection with that lucrative transaction? Federal authorities, and inquiring journalists, want to know. So should District residents.

For far too long, the intersection of campaign contributions and city contracts has been ignored. It is a serious mistake. The coupling of donations with contract awards smacks of “pay to play,” an insidious arrangement that casts a pall over the government.

A case in point is the lottery contract. As I previously reported, and as The Post’s Mike DeBonis has written, D.C. Council member Michael Brown (D-At Large) — who was defeated this month in his reelection bid — collected four $1,000 money orders in March 2011 for his 2008 campaign account, “Friends of Michael Brown.” Brown pushed through the council legislation authorizing online gambling under the control of the D.C. Lottery. The money orders were from relatives of Emmanuel Bailey, whose company Veteran Services Corp. (VSC) owns 51 percent of a company called DC09, which was awarded the lottery contract.

Bailey delivered to Brown’s committee the four money orders plus a $1,000 check from himself and one from VSC.

The odor stunk up the place.

Six days later, Brown refunded to the donors the four money-order contributions.

The problem extends beyond pay-to-play schemes.

Newly passed legislation will cut down on contractors’ ability to buy their way into city business, a role often played by D.C. moneybags — one of whom made most of his money from city contracts.

Politicians treated the businessman — or, more succinctly, he allowed himself to be treated — as a piggy bank in exchange for their obsequiousness and protection.

Love of money has already devastated former council member Harry Thomas Jr., now a federal penitentiary inmate, as well as former council chairman, convicted felon and now home-detainee Kwame Brown.

Breaking money’s hold on our politicians may be akin to keeping an alcoholic away from strong drink. But it must be done.

Are we likely to see more examples of public leaders falling victim to their greed, arrogance and addiction to adulation? You’d better believe it.

Which gets me back to the campaign worker whose laptop is in the custody of authorities.

“If you need something,” the worker told me, the candidate often gave instructions: “Go see” — he named a businessman, whose name for now I will leave out of print — “and tell him what you need.” That kind of off-the-books money, the worker said, was always available. It was provided, almost without question, because the moneybags knew the politician would be there for him when needed.

Nothing original in that you might say, and you would be right. But it’s still wrong.

The cozy, and corrupt, arrangement supplants your voice in government. It undermines public policy and directs resources toward the powerful and privileged. It fouls our leaders and stinks up the city.

And to think: pocketing five figures to drop out of a race.