- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The District’s political scene was abuzz when federal agents raided the home and offices one of the city’s most prolific campaign donors about two weeks ago. But when the feds came looking for answers from elected officials’ campaign teams, things got messy around city hall.

News broke on Tuesday that federal prosecutors are asking various D.C. officials for any records related to Jeffrey E. Thompson, his affiliates and their contributions to D.C. political campaigns since 2003.

But their activities extended into Wednesday, with council members announcing their campaigns’ receipt of subpoenas with varying deadlines to comply. The flurry of activity follows a March 2 raid on the home and offices of Mr. Thompson, an accountant and holder of a lucrative managed-care contract with the city through his D.C. Chartered Health Plan.

The highly unusual request set off mixed signals and confusion among staff and officials at the John A. Wilson Building, who were quick to note the subpoenas were directed at campaign treasurers and not the council members’ offices.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, was upfront about the fact his campaign had received one of the U.S. attorney’s requests. His treasurer will comply with the subpoena, he said.

Later in the day, council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, said her campaign received a subpoena on Wednesday relating to her special election in 2007 and regular election the following year. The campaign has until March 23 to fulfill the request.

“Of course, we’ll give them what they need,” she said.

By 5 p.m., council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, announced that his campaign had also been served. He said he learned on Wednesday afternoon that his campaign treasurers from 2006 and 2010 had received the subpoenas.

Mr. Thompson contributed 15 checks to the Mendelson campaign in 2010, Mr. Mendelson said.

“None were money orders, two were cashier checks,” he said. “Each was for $1,000 and each contributor was listed on the next report filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.”

Staff members for the city’s top elected officials, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, said early Wednesday that their campaigns had not been served.

Council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, reportedly demurred on the topic at a candidates’ forum on Tuesday. Some lawmakers said their campaigns had not received anything and others could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Evans said he thinks some of his colleagues are being coy.

If anyone in the D.C. government is up to no good, he added, “they need to step up and say so right now. Otherwise, this is going to be a long, drawn-out process.”

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, declined to say whether his campaign received a subpoena. He said it is not appropriate for him, or anyone else, to comment on an ongoing investigation.

“A lot of these council members have diarrhea of the mouth, and they ought to stop it,” he said, noting it’s up to investigators to render swift justice. “I just urge the U.S. attorney not to string this along.”

Although federal investigators have been mum on what they are looking for of late, discussion around city hall suggests the use of money orders - which could be used to shroud straw donors to various campaigns - may be their focus.

Council member Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat hoping to hold off party challengers in an April primary election, told reporters this week he would encourage an additional review of $26,000 in money orders he received from Mr. Thompson and affiliates.

The Office of Campaign Finance confirmed on Wednesday it has been auditing Mr. Orange’s 2011 special election campaign since Feb. 13, although it declined to elaborate or suggest it is connected to recent events.

“All successful campaigns are audited after the election they were a part of,” OCF spokesman Wesley Williams said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, said his campaign did not receive a subpoena. Mr. Wells is believed to be the only sitting elected official who has not received campaign money from Mr. Thompson’s fundraising machine.

The buzz about questionable campaign practices, particularly when it comes to money orders, is prompting action.

Council member Mary M. Cheh has directed her staff to work up legislation that would either ban or significantly curtail the use of money orders to finance campaigns in the District.

Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said she hopes to introduce a bill before the Committee of the Whole on Tuesday after circulating it around the John A. Wilson Building to gauge support among her colleagues.

“I know I’m doing it, whether or not anyone else is,” Ms. Cheh, who also noted her campaign did not get a subpoena, said Wednesday.

Ms. Cheh said her money-order bill could potentially merge with her recent legislation to ban corporate donations to political campaigns, if the latter bill gets a hearing before the Committee on Government Operations of which Ms. Bowser is chairman.

Mr. Wells co-introduced the corporate-giving ban but is hesitant about the money-order question.

“My first instinct is to say yes, we should ban them, but D.C. has a disproportionate number of people who are unbanked,” he said, referring to residents without checking accounts. “You make an assumption about people and I’m not sure it’s good to make assumptions or play into stereotypes of any kind.”

Ms. Cheh said her bill could be tweaked once there is additional vetting of “the byproducts” of curbs on money orders.

“Maybe instead of banning them outright, you could put guardrails around them,” she said. Those limits could include a $25 maximum on money-order donations — the same limit imposed on cash contributions — or a cap on the number of money orders a candidate could accept per campaign.

Mr. Evans said he would “certainly consider” the prohibition, but it should not be approved in piecemeal fashion. Rather, any such ban should be attached to existing campaign finance legislation or as part of a comprehensive bill.

“Should we knee-jerk and just ban money orders?” Mr. Evans said. “I don’t think that’s a good way to run the legislative process.”

Mr. Wells says it is good to look to other states when crafting new campaign finance laws for the District, since they’ve had a longer period of trial-and-error than the city’s four decades of home rule.

A quick review of state laws shows that Massachusetts, for instance, says political contributions made by money order cannot exceed $50, the same cap it imposes on cash donations. Hawaii stresses that campaign donors have to purchase their own money orders, because otherwise “there would be no audit trail.”

“Almost every state has had scandals,” Mr. Wells said, “and they’ve written laws to address them.”

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