D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told a local radio station recently that city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson, the central figure in a deepening campaign scandal involving D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, didn't bundle any campaign cash for her.
"Jeff Thompson never collected, bundled money for me," the Democrat told WPFW-FM.
But hours later, Mrs. Norton's campaign issued a statement to The Washington Times saying, "Checks connected to Mr. Thompson came during a fundraising reception he sponsored for the Congresswoman. Among those who attended and contributed were Mr. Thompson's associates and others he invited."
To Craig Holman, legislative representative for the watchdog group Public Citizen who is considered a national authority in campaign-finance law, the Norton campaign statement sounds exactly like what a bundler does: Gather like-minded people at receptions who then donate lots of money to politicians.
"That is the very definition of bundling," Mr. Holman said. "People play very fast and loose with the definition of bundling. It should be a very broad term that captures any act in which a single individual gets credit raising campaign funds for others.
"It's clear to everyone he was doing it as a means to gain access," he said of Mr. Thompson, who has not been charged but whose name appears on subpoenas sent to several city lawmakers. "I'd be critical of anyone who hangs on to that money."
Mrs. Norton's decision last week to keep campaign donations from Mr. Thompson puts her at odds with her own party's leadership. The Democratic Party, President Obama, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine all have returned donations they received from Mr. Thompson or contributions tied to him. Meantime, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which accepted $25,000 from Mr. Thompson in 2004, has not said whether it plans to part with its donation.
Under federal election law, campaigns can return donations, donate them to charity or send them to the U.S. Treasury Department.
The Times reported early last week that Mrs. Norton had raised about $50,000 in just three days leading up to her successful 2006, 2008 and 2010 re-elections from Mr. Thompson, his employees and associates and their family members. The Times also made phone and email inquiries to Mrs. Norton's office with questions about the contributions, but nobody responded until after her radio interview days later.
"Our donations complied with federal law," Mrs. Norton said on radio.
The campaign later released a statement to The Times saying all of the money taken in by Mr. Thompson was legal.
"Her campaign contributions are always checked first by her campaign and then by her accountants to assure that they meet federal law and regulations," the statement read. "All her contributions have met this standard. More recently, we again verified the legality of all Norton contributions."
It's unclear how the Norton campaign determined the legality of the contributions, including more than $6,000 received over the years from Eugenia Harris, a convicted felon and longtime political operative who pleaded guilty in federal court to helping to orchestrate a massive straw-donor campaign to help Mr. Gray defeat D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in 2010.
Mr. Gray has not been charged, and there is no indication at this point that he knew about the so-called "shadow campaign." Not long after Harris' guilty plea, Ronald C. Machen Jr., U.S. attorney for the District, told reporters that the illegal campaign schemes didn't start in 2010 but stretched back to 2001 and involved both federal and D.C. campaigns.
The Norton campaign did not respond to emails asking whether officials had received assurances from federal prosecutors or interviewed Mr. Thompson or Harris as part of the determination that no straw donations were given to Mrs. Norton.
Bill Miller, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment.
Others aren't so sure that money from Mr. Thompson and his associates is "clean." O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese last week explained the decision by Mr. O'Malley to return more than $30,000 in money tied to Mr. Thompson. "The contributions were not made illegally to Martin O'Malley, but given what we now know about the shadow campaign in D.C., the governor made the decision to donate the money."
Campaign records show the bulk of the money tied to Mr. Thompson that was given to Mr. O'Malley came weeks before Harris and Mr. Thompson and his associates, along with family members, gave about $20,000 to the Norton campaign in the fall of 2010.
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