Jeanne Clarke Harris leaves the US District Courthouse after pleading… (Jabin Botsford/FOR THE…)
A secret $653,000 effort funded by one of the District government’s most prominent contractors corrupted the 2010 mayoral race and helped Vincent C. Gray get elected, the city’s top federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said the well-funded, well-equipped “shadow campaign” went to work for Gray but was not reported to campaign-finance authorities or disclosed to the voting public.
The revelations came as Jeanne Clarke Harris, a 75-year-old public-relations consultant, admitted in U.S. District Court as part of a plea deal that she helped disburse and conceal the funds spent by businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.
The secret money bought about 10,000 yard signs, 6,500 T-shirts and 200 umbrellas in addition to banners, lapel stickers, posters, consultants, canvassers, drivers, laptop computers, radios and a public-address system. Many items had logos and designs identical to Gray’s official campaign materials, and many — “if not all” — of the items were delivered to Gray’s campaign headquarters, prosecutors said in a court filing.
At a news conference after Harris’s guilty pleas, Machen decried political corruption in the city, saying that the mayoral race was “compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash.”
“Today’s plea confirms the sad truth that many of us have long feared: that the 2010 mayoral election was corrupted by a massive infusion of cash that was illegally concealed from the voters of the District,” he said.
Prosecutors did not allege that Gray had knowledge of the “shadow campaign,” but they said that the effort was “coordinated” with members of his campaign. And Harris testified that although Thompson wrote the checks, he did not conceive of the scheme.
“The money was from” Thompson, she said in court, “but the plan was developed by another person.” That person was not named Tuesday.
On Tuesday, through spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, Gray declined to comment.
Thompson was not named in court Tuesday or in prosecution filings, but three people familiar with the investigation confirmed that Thompson — owner of a health-care company and a prominent accounting firm — is the “co-conspirator” referred to by authorities. His attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., has not responded to requests for comment.
Tuesday’s revelations greatly expanded concerns — first raised by minor candidate Sulaimon Brown — that the city’s 2010 mayoral election was corrupted by illicit payoffs. Two Gray campaign operatives have pleaded guilty to federal felonies related to Brown’s allegations that he was paid during the campaign to verbally attack the incumbent, Adrian M. Fenty.
Machen said that although the “shadow campaign” appeared legitimate — with vans, yard signs and stickers — its funding was “sinister.” Of the $653,800 that came from Thompson’s accounting firm, Machen said, about one-third went to pay staff. Nearly $130,000 paid for campaign materials, $58,000 went toward field worker supplies, and the rest went toward other expenses including vans and hotels.
“The ‘shadow campaign’ was entirely off the books, financed with secret corporate money so that D.C. voters had no idea what was influencing them at the ballot box,” he said.
Bill Lightfoot, who chaired Fenty’s 2010 campaign, said the scope of the effort “brings in to question the legitimacy of the Gray administration.”
“This $650,000 is enough money to buy a local election, and it appears it bought the mayor’s office for Vincent Gray,” he said.
Still, Gray won the September 2010 primary by nearly 10 percentage points — 13,000 votes. His vote total was boosted in part by a better-than-expected turnout east of the Anacostia River, where Gray campaign workers have said the “shadow campaign” was focused.
The Gray campaign ended up raising $2.8 million, but it had $331,825 on hand a week before the Democratic primary. The better-financed Fenty campaign, at the time, had more than double that amount.
According to prosecutors, much of the shadow campaign’s money and manpower was focused on the two weeks before the primary.
Harris said Thompson opted to hide his campaign largesse in large part to avoid angering Fenty, whose administration his businesses relied on for contracts. The Medicaid deal held by his D.C. Chartered Health Plan is the city’s largest contract: It is worth more than $300 million yearly.
“He did not want the sitting mayor to find out he was supporting his opponent,” Harris said. “If somehow the sitting mayor won, he would be in some serious contractual problems.”
Harris, a veteran of city politics and a close Thompson associate for more than a decade, appeared before Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to plead guilty to three charges, including conspiring to evade federal and local campaign finance laws and obstruct justice.