- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2012

Federal prosecutors on Monday accelerated their ongoing probe into Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign by charging an associate of one of the District of Columbia’s most prolific political contributors.

Court papers accuse Jeanne C. Harris, a city resident and business owner, of conspiring to make “straw donations” to political campaigns, including $44,000 that appears to have been given to Mr. Gray’s heavily scrutinized bid to unseat Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Prosecutors say Ms. Harris culled maximum donations from family members, friends and associates that were later reimbursed by a co-conspirator.

The development suggests that prosecutors are shifting their focus to Jeffrey E. Thompson, a well-known accountant and prolific political contributor who has leveraged a wide network of associates to donate to the campaigns of almost every sitting politician in the District.

Federal agents raided Ms. Harris’ property on March 2, the same day investigators searched Mr. Thompson’s home and offices. Neither of their attorneys could be reached for comment late Monday.

Mr. Thompson, who has not been charged with any crimes, has been viewed for months as a key figure in U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr.’s wide-ranging probe into campaign finance issues in the District, which recently produced guilty pleas from two Gray aides who said they paid minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown in hopes he would continue verbal attacks on Mr. Fenty on the campaign trail.

But the charges against Ms. Harris signal new horizons for the federal probe that has dogged Mr. Gray’s first term and speak to wider concerns about the influence that campaign contributors wield over officials at city hall.

Ms. Harris is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday to answer three criminal charges - two counts of conspiracy and one count of making false statements - contained in an information, a type of charging document that typically signals a guilty plea is imminent.

Among the accusations, prosecutors say, Ms. Harris submitted a 2010 corporate tax return for one of her companies, Belle International, that improperly deducted $908,217 in political contributions that were not tax-deductible and that she understated the company’s taxable income.

In charging documents, Ms. Harris is described as having a “close friendship and professional relationship with “co-conspirator #1,” who is widely thought to be Mr. Thompson.

Prosecutors say the co-conspirator reimbursed Ms. Harris for contributions she made, including three $2,000 donations to a 2010 mayoral campaign, widely thought to be the Gray campaign, in her name and the names of her companies, Belle and Details International.

She also arranged for 16 family members, friends and employees to contribute $2,000 each - the maximum allowed - to the campaign, which the co-conspirator reimbursed, according to charging papers.

At the time of the federal raid, Mr. Thompson was the primary owner of the accounting firm Thompson, Bazilio, Cobb & Associates and held a lucrative Medicaid contract with the District through D.C. Chartered Health. The court papers say the “co-conspirator” is the sole owner of one company and the majority owner of another.

Ms. Harris also helped incorporate Rapid Trans Services, a Thompson-affiliated company that has been a reliable source of campaign cash for city politicians over the years, according to campaign filings. The company began operations in 2008, the same year Mr. Thompson’s similarly named medical transportation company, RapidTrans Inc., gave up its license to drive passengers.

The company does not list Mr. Thompson as one of its officers, showing instead Ms. Harris. But the company was never licensed to transport patients.

Court papers say Ms. Harris and the co-conspirator were aware of the legal limits on campaign contributions but “circumvented those limits.”

In 2008, the co-conspirator reimbursed Ms. Harris for $14,650 in contributions she made to federal political campaigns and committees, the charging papers say.

In that same year, she arranged for a family member, a friend and an employee to be reimbursed for $2,300 in federal campaign contributions they made in their names, totaling $6,900.

Charging papers accuse Ms. Harris and the co-conspirator of drafting false documents that portrayed the exchange of funds as legitimate business expenses owed to Belle.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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