U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. followed a public shaming of the former D.C. Council chairman this week with a vow to “ensure public trust” — a pledge sure to be tested as he resolves his probe into Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign, the last in a trio of investigations that blazed a path this year from city hall to the federal courthouse.
Former council member Harry Thomas Jr. is serving time in a federal prison in Alabama for stealing public funds, and the man who led the city’s lawmaking body for more than a year — Kwame R. Brown — will be confined to his home for the next six months for bank fraud after a pair of sentencings, including one in shackles, on Tuesday.
Although Mr. Machen prompted the historic resignation of both elected officials, the mayor remains at a difficult crossroads despite staying above the fray of campaign-related charges that have festered from the start of his term. He appears to want to put questions of illicit payments and a “shadow campaign” to rest so he can address topics like school closures and expanding the city’s private sector. Yet any progress in the city’s public corruption investigations returns attention to the uncertainty around the mayor and creates a fresh public disruption as he crosses the midpoint of his term.
“Obviously, we’d like to see it move on,” Mr. Gray said of the probe at his biweekly press briefing on Wednesday. “But we recognize that it’s a painstaking, complicated investigation and they’ll get to a conclusion when they get to it.”
The federal investigation into Mr. Gray’s mayoral run began with unusual claims from a fired city employee, Sulaimon Brown, early last year and resulted in guilty pleas from three aides to the campaign. While two of the three aides await sentencing for managing at least $650,000 in unreported campaign funds and for covering up furtive payments to allow Mr. Brown to continue verbal attacks on incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, the overarching probe has been in a holding pattern.
The figure most likely to unstick the pause button is Jeffrey E. Thompson, a city contractor widely suspected to be the source of undocumented funds that circulated through the 2010 campaign, whether Mr. Gray knew it or not. Mr. Thompson’s home and offices were raided in March, and he is on the cusp of losing his lucrative managed health care contract with the city, but he has not been charged with any crimes. His attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., maintained his silence on the case with a “no comment” Wednesday.
Because initial players in the case have pleaded guilty, federal authorities must make difficult decisions about how much time and money to invest in the case and whether they should pursue “larger fish,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.
“It often just depends on what else is out there and whether they think there is more to the story,” he said.
Mr. Gray, who hired high-powered lawyer Robert S. Bennett, has been silent on accusations at the heart of the probe but insists he ran an honest campaign.
But questions about what happened during the 2010 campaign, and what Mr. Gray did or did not know about it, have swirled around the executive since the start of his term and will continue to bob to the surface, threatening to upend his efforts to fulfill his “One City” campaign pledge by creating jobs and top-notch education facilities and increasing public safety across all wards.
Asked how quickly the probe should progress, Mr. Gray said Wednesday that prosecutors will “have to decide that for themselves.”
Unlike the investigation that uncovered Thomas‘ theft of $350,000 in public funds and an act of bank fraud by Brown, the chastened former council chairman, the probe into the Gray campaign has not taken a direct route to the man at city hall. Rather, it has lingered well past the findings of 2011 investigations by a special D.C. Council committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Capitol Hill that fell short of the mayor.
“I think the more public the case is, the more pressure there is to pursue it past its point of diminishing returns,” said Mr. Vladeck, who commented on federal investigations in general and not specifically on issues in the Gray campaign.
Mr. Gray held his news conference on Wednesday about 24 hours after a federal judge sentenced Brown to an afternoon in the custody of the U.S. Marshals, six months of house arrest and 480 hours of community service.
The mayor discussed a range of topics, from economic development to attacks on Metro buses, at the Kennedy Recreation Center in Northwest, which featured a backdrop of swinging cranes as the O Street Market rises along Seventh Street. He pointed to the project as one of many economic initiatives in an ambitious five-year plan to bring $1 billion in new tax revenue to the city and create 100,000 jobs.
The announcement was one of several long-term goals the mayor has unveiled in recent months, maintaining a strict focus on city business while the specter of further action by Mr. Machen’s team lingers in the background.
Turmoil around the probe crested in the summer when a Gray campaign aide, Eugenia C. Harris, admitted in court that she managed straw donations and undocumented funds to get out the vote in 2010. The revelations prompted three council members to call on Mr. Gray to resign.
When a reporter asked Mr. Gray on Wednesday whether he plans to still be in office to see his five-year economic development plan through, the mayor did not give a direct, affirmative answer, but did say he needed to be “visionary” and kick-start the plan.
“Whether I’m here or not,” he said, “I think we have carved out a direction.”