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Vincent Gray’s scandals promise to tangle D.C. mayoral campaign

Critics say his only unfinished business is investigation

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2013

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray stood before reporters Tuesday at a portable podium inside a construction site less than 24 hours after filing for re-election and touted the progress of his economic development plans for the city.

Against a backdrop of gypsum board and plastic sheeting that covered the sides of the unfinished building, the mayor was barely through a thinly disguised campaign speech when the questions inevitably turned to the scandal that surrounded his 2010 election bid and enveloped his first term.

"I want to talk about the future of the District of Columbia," he said, brushing off one question.

"2010 is now getting ready to be four years ago, and I want to talk about what happens going forward in 2014," he told another reporter.

But unanswered questions about his involvement with a "shadow campaign" that illegally funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to his first mayoral bid have festered and resulted in calls for the mayor's resignation from three D.C. Council members. With 10 other candidates running in a crowded field for a Democratic primary four months away, the rhetoric has turned quickly to ethics — and the mayor.

Veterans of D.C. politics, campaign operatives and activists have their own theories as to whether or when prosecutors might bring charges against Mr. Gray and to what extent the threat of indictment has affected his decision to run.

"It's tragic that the mayor has put himself in a position where he can't answer questions that will linger," said Peter Nickles, an attorney general in the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and a political adversary of Mr. Gray's.

Rather, he said, the other candidates in a crowded field will be left to debate those issues while the U.S. attorney's office continues to investigate.

"There are other good candidates who can govern without the cloud of corruption," Mr. Nickles said. "How devastating for the city for him to run, win and then face charges later. Until all the questions have been answered, then, and only then, should the mayor proceed to run for re-election."

'A sense of urgency'

The 2-year investigation into the mayor's campaign headed by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has moved in fits and starts.

Prosecutors have not offered evidence that Mr. Gray had any knowledge of underhanded efforts by his 2010 campaign staff. But they have laid out a scheme by which more than $650,000 in unreported cash was funneled to the Gray campaign that has prompted questions about what Mr. Gray knew and when he knew it.

The probe began almost comically, when minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown said in March 2011 that he was paid and promised a job to stay in the race and continue verbal attacks against Mr. Fenty.

The scandal elevated in March 2012 after a raid on the home and offices of prolific political donor Jeffrey E. Thompson, who is widely believed to have funded the scheme.

Mr. Thompson has not been charged, but four people connected to the campaign have pleaded guilty to offenses related to the investigation and have cooperated with prosecutors.

The details of the scandal come most often in the course of damaging court appearances by former campaign operatives admitting to crimes exposed in the probe. They also have been accompanied by tough talk from the man in charge of the investigation.

After one aide pleaded guilty in May 2012, Mr. Machen said the voters of the District were "deceived." After another plea deal was announced two months later, he said the mayor's race was "compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash."

But with few new publicly known developments in the investigation and the April 1 primary looming, Mr. Machen says he understands the public outcry for a resolution.

"I can tell you this: We know the situation. We know there's a sense of urgency," he said at a community forum days before the mayor announced his candidacy.

The city's top prosecutor also appears to be tempering expectations, adding that the election can't affect the timeline of the investigation.

"When we can move, we try to take that into account because we know it's important for the voters to have some sense of closure and to know what's going on. We're sensitive to that. But at the same time, there's nothing we can do," he said.

Mr. Machen has cited obstacles to the wide-ranging investigation. Most recently, he has sparred with D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who has claimed attorney-client privilege and declined to turn over documents and emails that the prosecutor says are related to the investigation.

Mr. Nathan has dismissed the charge, saying he already has handed over 20,000 documents, responded to dozens of inquiries and granted numerous witness interviews.

Another potential obstacle: Mr. Thompson is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court the seizure of millions of pages of documents on computer files.

Running on a record

Mr. Gray revisited his five-year economic plan Tuesday at the City Market at O Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest — the site where he introduced the plan a year ago. Dozens of supporters, government employees and reporters assembled on the barren ninth floor of a building that didn't exist when the plan was announced.

"I think we've made an enormous amount of progress since we started one year ago," Mr. Gray said. "We are working to redefine the District of Columbia."

Among the accomplishments, Mr. Gray said, more than 17,000 jobs will be created out of initiatives completed in the first year, including those at two Wal-Mart stores set to open Wednesday. The goal is to create 100,000 more jobs in the city by 2017.

The mayor has sought to make the District an East Coast technology hub and touted a commitment by Microsoft to build an innovation center. He also hailed the success of the city's technology incubator — the site of 175 startups.

The District holds more than $1.5 billion in reserve, replenishing a fund that diminished under the Fenty administration. Mr. Gray said he expects the amount to grow when officials complete another audit early next year.

"This city is growing in development. I know this administration has been a huge part in making that happen," Mr. Gray said. "Look at the job creation. Look at the education. Look at the economic development. Look at the public safety."

His accomplishments over the past three years have secured Mr. Gray healthy support among the business community.

"He's got a pretty good record," D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang said. "I think the city has done well and businesses have done generally well."

Ms. Lang said the scandal has been "harped on to death" for the three years Mr. Gray has been in office.

"We've had our share of overall scandals in the city — period," she said.

Ted Leonsis, the billionaire former AOL executive who owns the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards, told The Associated Press in an interview before Mr. Gray's announcement that the scandals have not harmed the city's business climate.

"There's never been a better time for you to create a business in Washington," Mr. Leonsis said, adding that he would support the mayor if Mr. Gray sought re-election.

Yvette M. Alexander, a Democrat who represents Ward 7 where the mayor lives, came out for Mr. Gray almost immediately after he declared Monday.

Ms. Alexander cited several issues under her purview as chairwoman of the city's Committee on Health as reasons for her support.

She also said the mayor's action to ensure six Wal-Marts were built in the District was also a reason for her endorsement. Without Mr. Gray's veto of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, Wal-Mart executives had threatened to pull out of the planned D.C. stores — including two in Ward 7 — rather than pay wages and benefits the equivalent of $12.50 per hour.

"I think continuity in this case is definitely needed to keep things moving in the right direction," she said.

The critics

While the investigation is a factor in assessing Mr. Gray's electoral prospects, political observers also question whether his record as mayor is strong enough to stand on its own.

The mayor has faced criticism from community groups and labor organizers angered by his veto of the wage bill.

"Let there be no doubt that the coalition was very, very disappointed with the veto and his explanation," said Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO.

The labor leader said Mr. Gray might have a chance to mend fences with workers — a constituency crucial to his 2010 victory — by his handling of a bill moving through the D.C. Council to increase the city's minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $11.50.

Mr. Gray has supported increasing the minimum wage to $10, making the fate of the bill, which unanimously passed an initial council vote Tuesday, uncertain.

"The question is, what kind of a Christmas is he going to put under the tree for many workers in this city?" Mr. Williams said.

Under the Gray administration, student test scores have continued to rise and homicide totals have continued to fall — trends that began before he was elected. The mayor has seemed particularly sensitive to similar suggestions about the city's economic prosperity.

L. Asher Corson, a political strategist and former communications director for Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, accepts that the election should be about the mayor's stewardship and not the investigation.

"By that measure, I'm concerned that his performance has not been good," Mr. Corson said. "He hasn't been a bad fiscal steward, but he hasn't improved the city's finances either."

Mr. Corson, a fourth-term advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, also pointed to grass-roots concerns about the role of community liaisons being undercut by a centralized bureaucracy that has slowed city progress.

"He pours molasses over everything he touches," Mr. Corson said.

Former City Administrator and D.C. School Board President Robert C. Bobb said the mayor has shown "tremendous energy" in office.

"The city has clearly benefited from a strong economy, but it takes strong leadership, and he has shown that," he said.

However, Mr. Bobb qualified the assessment, pointing to "tremendous challenges" in public education and unemployment figures that in certain areas are "atrocious."

As of October, unemployment figures topped 24 percent in Ward 8 and 8.9 percent across the city — both up from a year ago.

Mr. Bobb, rumored to have considered his own run for mayor, agreed that questions about election tampering will dog Mr. Gray at every debate and every public event throughout the entire campaign.

"Those issues still have to be addressed," he said.

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