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Raid on political donor shakes D.C. government

Potential fallout could influence campaigns, recall effort

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2012

The full intent of a federal raid late Friday on an influential D.C. political donor's home and offices remains unclear, but by Monday morning the potential fallout of the incident reverberated through city hall, the campaign trail and a long-shot effort to recall the city's top elected officials.

Federal authorities did not accuse Jeffrey E. Thompson — the president of an accounting firm and owner of D.C. Chartered Health Plan, which holds a lucrative Medicaid managed-care contract with the city — of any crimes or wrongdoing during its "law enforcement activities" on Friday, nor did a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office elaborate on what they were looking for.

But D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and reportedly the only city lawmaker with no ties to Mr. Thompson's fundraising machine, said the issue at hand "goes straight to pay-to-play, and at least the perception to the public that it's corporate influence that controls the council's agenda."

When the council passed a sweeping ethics reform bill last year, Mr. Wells pushed an amendment that would prohibit principal business owners from using subsidiary companies to inflate their total donations to a single candidate, a practice known as "bundling." He did not succeed, and he said Monday he has "no confidence" the council will ban the practice in the near future.

Over the course of multiple campaigns, Mr. Thompson, his companies and his associates have donated $100,000 to both council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, and former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty; $90,000 to sitting Mayor Vincent C. Gray; and $33,000 to council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, according to a June report in the Washington City Paper. The report also noted that Mr. Wells appears to be the only council member who has not accepted funds related to Mr. Thompson.

"Yes, that is accurate, that I know of," Mr. Wells said Monday. "There are a lot of ancillary businesses that I may not know are related to him."

Mr. Gray's spokesman declined to comment on speculation that the search of Mr. Thompson's materials could be tied to the federal investigation into the mayor's 2010 campaign, particularly the way in which it raised its funds.

"All we know is what we are reading in the media," spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said.

Mr. Brown also declined to comment on the raid. He acknowledged that Mr. Thompson has donated to his three campaigns but claimed Mr. Thompson only offered support when he was on his way to clear victory.

"Everybody supports you once you win," he quipped.

Democratic challengers to Mr. Orange's council seat seized on Friday's raid and its implications ahead of the April 3 primary election.

Sekou Biddle, who was appointed in January 2011 as an interim at-large council member before losing the seat to Mr. Orange last April, sent a message to his supporters that highlights the reported $100,000 in campaign contributions that tie Mr. Orange to Mr. Thompson.

"Unlike Vincent Orange, I do not rely on corporate and special interest money to fund my campaign," Mr. Biddle said. "My campaign is funded by regular D.C. residents who are fed up and know we can do better than the corrupt council we have."

Challenger Peter Shapiro, a former council member in Prince George's County, also issued a statement that says Mr. Orange "must answer questions today" about his ample funding from Mr. Thompson.

Mr. Orange said all of his opponents have accepted corporate donations and should focus on their individual records.

He also noted Mr. Thompson has not donated to any of them in the current cycle, and previous donations to his campaigns were by the book.

"If he gave me $100,000 I'd be sitting in jail," Mr. Orange said, noting each donation tied to Mr. Thompson was within campaign limits. "His contributions abided by the law."

Meanwhile, Frederick Butler, a Ward 2 resident leading an uphill effort to recall the mayor and council chairman, said Friday's events only buttress "what we're doing here." He said the raid proves that an internal network is driving "acts of malfeasance" in the city government.

"I still think our effort is needed and warranted," he said.

Mr. Butler, a supporter of Mr. Fenty, said his goal is have 40,000 signatures — roughly 20,000 for Mr. Gray and 20,000 for Mr. Brown — by April 3, when registered voters head to the polls for primary elections. The elections will be a key time for additional signature-gathering, he said.

For their part, the mayor and chairman have said they are focused on the business of the city. They formally responded to Mr. Butler's petitions at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics with an outline of their accomplishments.

Mr. Butler said he has a rotation of three volunteers per day on the streets and that they will target certain precincts when they reach 10,000 signatures. He could not offer an exact figure for signatures collected thus far but claimed to have "well over a couple thousand."

"The momentum's only building," Mr. Butler said.

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