Three D.C. Council members called on embattled Mayor Vincent C. Gray to resign Wednesday, just hours after he defended his integrity in his first public comments since federal prosecutors outlined a politically damaging “shadow” effort by members of his 2010 campaign.
David A. Catania, Mary M. Cheh and Muriel Bowser became the first city leaders to argue that Mr. Gray is no longer entitled to the highest office in the District because of underhanded deeds committed during his bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
“I’ve been trying to decide, ‘What possible explanation is there that would exonerate him from this?’ ” said Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, who deemed the decision “absolutely” more heart-wrenching than calling on Harry Thomas Jr. to resign from the council for stealing public funds. “I had come to admire [Mr. Gray] greatly. This is a hard one. I’m going to go home and cry.”
Mr. Gray, facing a bevy of TV cameras and reporters at his biweekly press briefing Wednesday, deflected the most pressing questions about the startling revelations laid bare in federal court Tuesday. Prosecutors said conspirators fed at least $653,800 in unreported cash to pay for supplies and consultants on behalf of Mr. Gray, whether he knew it or not.
“This is not the campaign that we intended to run,” Mr. Gray said. “I got into this for the right reasons.”
A day after the city’s top prosecutor said publicly that the 2010 campaign was “compromised,” Mr. Gray answered questions about whether he would remain in office by saying, “I have no plans to do otherwise.”
But Ms. Bowser, the Ward 4 Democrat who authored the city’s recently enacted comprehensive ethics reform law, said the mayor’s legal troubles were creating a distraction and that he should step down for the good of the city.
She said the ongoing investigation has exposed “tremendously outrageous conduct.”
“If you have a $1.2 million campaign, a $600,000 infusion is hard to miss,” she said.
Mr. Catania, at-large independent, said the mayor should resign and that it does not matter whether Mr. Gray knew about the off-the-books effort or not.
“The legitimacy of the election was called into question,” he said through a spokesman. “He should not be beneficiary of that illegality. He should step down immediately for the good of the District and its residents.”
Mr. Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, dismissed the comments in an email.
“This is the kind of irresponsible talk we’ve come to expect from [council member] Catania,” he said. “It’s disappointing however that a constitutional scholar of [council member] Cheh’s caliber would call for a resignation before an investigation is complete.”
While Mr. Gray acknowledged there were misdeeds by his campaign surrogates, he challenged anyone to criticize his administration’s performance.
“That’s why I wanted to make a distinction between the campaign, which we knew there are issues with, and governing,” he said.
The mayor delivered his personal defense in front of dozens of onlookers in an unusual setting - a pathway between houses east of the Anacostia River, where he unveiled an environmentally friendly type of porous concrete that should reduce runoff pollution.
“I never expected to see so many people in an alley in Ward 7,” he said with a smile.
But sustainability efforts were not the topic of the hour. From the moment Mr. Gray’s entourage pulled up in a Lincoln Navigator, it was clear he would have to address the game-changing court appearance of Jeanne C. Harris, a 75-year-old Gray donor and campaign operative who admitted she managed straw donations and unreported campaign expenditures on behalf of a D.C. businessman who wanted to see Mr. Gray elected to protect his contracts with the city.
Prosecutors say Harris used one of her companies as a pass-through for hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Gray campaign for Nextel radios, yard signs, T-shirts and other supplies that bore the logos of the official campaign and were purchased from the same vendors. All of the money came from an unnamed co-conspirator, widely thought to be Jeffrey E. Thompson.
Mr. Thompson is the owner of an accounting firm and holds a lucrative managed care contract with the District through D.C. Chartered Health. He is attempting to sell Chartered because the city government has made clear that it no longer wants to do business with him.
Despite some early interest from AmeriHealth Mercy of Philadelphia, he does not appear to have a confirmed buyer. He must move fast, because the city would like to select vendors for the new contract by October, officials said Wednesday.
Court papers filed by the U.S. attorney’s office say members of the Gray campaign told Harris and her unnamed conspirator in July 2010 that the campaign needed money.
“I actually thought we had raised a lot of money, to tell you the truth,” Mr. Gray said, when asked Wednesday to provide his view of the campaign’s financial status at the time. “It was a very short campaign.”
He said a record of any checks received by the campaign would have been turned in to the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, but noted that it is “not possible” for a candidate to sit down and personally review every contribution that comes into the campaign’s accounts.
Harris is the third Gray campaign operative to plead guilty to criminal charges, after a pair of staffers admitted that they paid a minor mayoral candidate to stay in the race so he could verbally attack Mr. Fenty.
The latest charges are sending shock waves through the D.C. political scene as the most damning evidence yet in an 18-month term marred by scandal. Earlier this year, Mr. Catania joined Ms. Cheh and Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, in demanding that Mr. Thomas step down from the council after he agreed to repay $350,000 in stolen public funds as part of a settlement with the D.C. attorney general.
Now, all eyes are on the mayor.
“He’s a good man and he will continue to do his work, but everything will be obscured, everything will be pulled to the bottom because of that question [about his campaign],” said Ms. Cheh, who provided a valuable endorsement to Mr. Gray from a part of the city that overwhelmingly supported Mr. Fenty during the mayoral race. “Everybody I saw today, no matter what we talked about, at some point they said, ‘What’s going on with the mayor?’ “
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that calls for Mr. Gray to resign create “instability at a time when we need just the opposite.”
While he applauded U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.’s efforts to expose corruption, the suspicion of a shadow campaign in Mr. Gray’s 2010 bid “is not new news” and “typically people say that the process should play itself out.”
“I will not defend criminal behavior, and I do not defend what we now know about the 2010 campaign,” Mr. Mendelson said. “But I also urge restraint in the seeking of another resignation until the U.S. Attorney actually asserts that the Mayor himself did something wrong.”
Mr. Gray rejected suggestions that he is unable to lead the city and continue his efforts to gain full voting rights in Congress for the District.
“I get up every morning and look in the mirror and see someone I respect,” Mr. Gray said.
A vigorous defense of his character notwithstanding, Mr. Gray reluctantly fell back on the boilerplate responses he has used to avoid questions about the ongoing probe.
“I would like to comment on all of this, to be honest with you,” Mr. Gray said. “This investigation is continuing. … Obviously, there is additional information that is unfolding. I think many of you will remember that more than a year ago I was the one who called for an investigation into my own campaign.”