Money and politics in D.C.
By Colbert I. King,
The District may have a watershed year in 2012. Three politically charged cases are expected to make big news.
They are the probes U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. is conducting into the alleged use of public funds for personal gain by D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5); the alleged failure of the 2008 campaign of council Chairman Kwame Brown to report contributions and expenditures of more than $270,000; and the alleged engagement of Vincent C. Gray’s mayoral campaign in a scheme in the run-up to the 2010 Democratic primary to have Sulaimon Brown, another mayoral candidate, attack then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
Both Kwame Brown and Gray have denied wrongdoing. Thomas’s attorney, Karl A. Racine, has said that Thomas maintains his innocence and that “we sincerely believe that there will be no finding of any criminal violations.”
Each case, however, stems from a toxic intersection of money and politics. Thus, a cloud of corruption has brought us to this crucial turning point.
True, the District has had big moments in corruption.
The drug bust of Marion Barry at the Vista Hotel in 1990 was a blow. But that was a story of one politician’s massive failings.
Congress’s imposition of a financial control board in 1995 to oversee the city was a step backward, too. But federal intervention also spoke to the city’s failure to manage its financial affairs.
This is different.
Nothing less than the system for electing our leaders is at issue. If I’m reading the smoke signals emanating from the U.S. courthouse correctly, our electoral system may be in for a shake-up in a way unseen since the arrival of home rule in 1975.
The contours of the federal probes are, of course, unknown. But one element in the investigations is likely to center on the city’s campaign finance laws and the mockery made of them by both contributors and recipients.
One doesn’t have to be a federal investigator or master sleuth to find examples.
As I noted in a column this month, business interests skirt campaign finance laws through the semi-secret practice of “bundling,” or making separate contributions through their affiliated or subsidiary corporations.
In response to my inquiry, the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance conducted a review of contributions received by key campaign committees from limited liability companies (LLCs) that have the same mailing address. The review, dated Dec. 27, covered the period from June 11, 2010, through July 30, 2011.
It examined several campaigns, including “Evans 2012,” the campaign of D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2); “Bowser 2012,” for council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4); “Orange At Large,” for council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large); “Gray for Mayor”; and “Kwame for Chair,” as D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D) sought the council chairmanship.
The review revealed that each campaign committee had received contributions from different LLCs that all had the same mailing address.
Under city law, political campaign committees are limited to contributions of $5,000 from any single source in an election. In addition, no person may contribute more than $8,500 total in any one election, to all candidates.
Let’s look at the “Kwame for Chair” campaign committee. The review shows that it received 10 contributions of $1,500 each on Aug. 26, 2010, from 10 LLCs. Each LLC had a separate bank account, but nine of the checks were from the same bank.
Three of the 10 listed LLCs — Tritox, Forrester Sustainable Initiatives and Sustainable Power Systems — had the same D.C. address. The remaining seven — Forrester Construction Co., Forrester Interiors, 12231 Parklawn Drive LLC, CIGI, Triton Ventures, Triton and DLVI — had the same Rockville address.
All 10 checks bear the same signature, “W. Cabot.” Online records indicate that Forrester Construction’s chief financial officer is Wayne Cabot.
Calls placed to Cabot at Forrester were directed to his assistant’s voice mail. Neither returned my calls.
I visited the Forrester headquarters in Rockville on Wednesday and was told to submit my requests in writing. I wrote as asked and was told by e-mail on Thursday that Forrester’s “authorized media representative” would be informed of my request upon his “return from holiday travel.”
I asked Kwame Brown about the 10 cited LLC contributions. He said he was unaware of them but would look into the matter. Brown stressed that he wants to review the whole issue of bundling and LLC contributions. He also said that he has urged Bowser, who chairs the council’s Government Operations Committee, to take up the issue early next year.
It falls to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance to determine officially whether the 10 checks in question, which total $15,000, exceed the contribution limitations pursuant to D.C. Official Code Section 1.1131.
Money and politics. Enter the prosecution. A new era to follow?