- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2012

Federal prosecutors provided answers last week to one of the most-pressing questions about D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 primary campaign - whether or not staffers paid a minor opponent to stay in the race with the hope he would continue his verbal attacks on incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

The answer is yes.

At least three people within the campaign conspired to make secret payments to Sulaimon Brown totaling $2,810, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. But even as they settled a burning question that had been explored by D.C. Council members and a House oversight committee for much of 2011, they opened the door to speculation about a wider “shadow campaign” within the Gray team and the role, if any, a raid on the home and office of one of the District’s most prolific political donors might have on the long-running probe.

“We don’t have a final resolution yet, really,” said council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat who conducted an investigation last year into apparent nepotism during the Gray administration’s hiring process and Mr. Brown’s claims in March 2011 that he had been paid under the table and promised a city job by the Gray team. “It looked as though there had to be a group of people. It wasn’t a lone wolf.”

What is new, she said, is the lingering question of “who else was included in this scheme?”

Mr. Brown’s claims have been validated as they pertain to two men, Thomas W. Gore and Howard L. Brooks, who pleaded guilty last week to making the furtive payments while working on the Gray campaign’s finance team. But their plea papers revealed the existence of at least $4,000 in money orders that were contributed to the Gray campaign through “straw donors” - people who contribute under the names of another person or obtain an unreported reimbursement for their donation.

Brooks’ attorney, Glenn F. Ivey, said Thursday that he does not know if his client spent any of his own funds on the money orders.

So a new question is at hand - where did this money come from?

“The shadow campaign has not been fully disclosed yet, to the extent that there really was one,” William Lightfoot, a former council member and chairman of Mr. Fenty’s 2010 campaign, said Friday on “The Politics Hour” on WAMU-FM (88.5).

Court papers said Brooks signed his name on four money orders comprising a $2,000 donation to the Gray campaign on June 1.

He also signed the name of a friend, described as “Person Four,” on four money orders to donate $2,000 to the Gray campaign on the same day, prosecutors said.

Although the friend’s name has not been made public, a contribution from Silver Spring resident Leroy Ellis matches the prosecutors’ description of the donation. Mr. Ellis, a friend and neighbor of Brooks, later obtained a job in the city’s Department of Employment Services.

For his part, Mr. Gray last week deflected questions about the charges and asked city residents to “let this investigation play out.”

Speculation and intrigue surrounding the Gray campaign ran rampant throughout most of 2011, starting in March when Mr. Brown was fired from a job at the D.C. Department of Healthcare Finance and went to The Washington Post with his claims. Interest in the allegations turned quiet while another sitting politician, Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, was forced to resign from the council and pleaded guilty to stealing more than $350,000 in public funds.

But federal agents in March raided the home and office of Jeffrey E. Thompson - an accountant and city contractor who has used a network of companies and associates to donate thousands to almost all sitting D.C. politicians - as part of an investigation into campaign finance issues.

Federal prosecutors subpoenaed several council members for records related to contributions from Mr. Thompson’s network.

The raid and subsequent court orders involving Mr. Thompson, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, reverberated through the District and have renewed legislative efforts to ban corporate contributions to city campaigns.

The investigations also have had a psychological impact on city hall, namely how the council is perceived, Ms. Cheh said. But lawmakers are continuing work on the fiscal 2013 budget and bills are still moving through committees.

“It’s more subtle than saying we’ve been prevented from doing our work,” Ms. Cheh said.

For his part, Mr. Gray has said he is committed to doing the city’s business, despite the distractions emanating from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“If he’s innocent, then [the harm to Mr. Gray] should not be irreparable,” Mr. Lightfoot said on WAMU. “I do think it’s time the mayor tells us what he knows.”

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

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