A Maryland man admitted in federal court to giving more than $160,000 in straw political donations at the direction of his former boss — the prolific political donor at the center of a D.C. campaign finance investigation that again appears to be accelerating after another person was charged Thursday.
Lee A. Calhoun, a 65-year-old principal at the accounting firm of Bazilio Cobb Associates, pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District to one misdemeanor count of making contributions in the name of another. Between 2002 and 2011, he was directed to donate to more than 30 campaigns and then reimbursed through “bonuses” by the former director of the firm, Jeffrey E. Thompson, according to his attorney.
“It was something that was done at the company,” attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr. said after Mr. Calhoun entered his guilty plea. “The people that worked there, the people that were friends with Mr. Thompson, were told to do these things, were convinced to do these things and that’s why they did them.”
Indeed, just a short time after the hour-and-a-half-long hearing ended, another former associate of Mr. Thompson was also charged with making straw donations. Stanley Straughter, of Philadelphia, is accused of funneling two donations for U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives races in 2010 through his business, Oak Lane Consulting Group.
Mr. Straughter, 71, lists both Oak Lane and Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates — the firm’s name before Mr. Thompson’s departure last year — as his employers in different federal campaign finance filings. He also serves as chairman of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs and as a board member of Pennsylvania-based Youth Advocate Programs Inc. Mr. Straughter’s attorney, Steven McCool, declined to comment Thursday.
Mr. Thompson — who has not been criminally charged — was not mentioned by name during Thursday’s court proceedings. But descriptions of an unnamed executive at whose direction Mr. Calhoun made the donations match Mr. Thompson, a former partner and chief executive officer at the firm.
“He offered many assurances that it was legal,” Mr. Calhoun said, referring to the unnamed executive.
Brendan Sullivan, a lawyer for Mr. Thompson, has consistently declined to speak about the investigation.
Mr. Calhoun, who was conversational and even jovial at times during the hearing, went on to admit that he continued to make the contributions in his and his wife’s name, even after he realized in 2002 they were illegal.
Mr. Calhoun’s charge stems from a 2011 donation to a candidate running for the U.S. House of Representatives. The only federal campaign he donated to that year was that of Rep. Donna M. Christensen, Virgin Islands Democrat, who was running for re-election. He and his wife, Michelle Calhoun, each gave $2,300, according to federal campaign finance records.
The 2010 suspect donations from Mr. Straughter appear to match a $2,300 donation given to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, and a $2,000 contribution to former Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democratic who died last year.
While Mr. Calhoun and Mr. Straughter were charged with only one criminal count, prosecutors made clear during Mr. Calhoun’s plea agreement hearing that there was a long-running pattern and practice of straw donations. A review of federal and local campaign finance records indicates Mr. Straughter and family members may have donated upward of $93,000 since 1999. Prosecutors said that through Mr. Calhoun and his family more than $83,000 in straw donations was funneled into federal political campaigns while more than $76,000 made its way into local campaigns in the District.
Mr. Calhoun said the same day he made a donation he would get a reimbursement check from his employer, usually labeled “advance on bonus.”
“There was a little on top every time. You’ll have to ask Mr. Thompson why that was,” Mr. MacMahon said, noting that the reimbursements were larger than the donations.
The company would also pay for any tax liability because of the additional income.
“The firm used a special accounting system to keep track of the thousands and thousands of dollars it was plowing into political campaigns,” U.S. Attorney for the District Ronald C. Machen Jr. said.
Bazilio Cobb Associates issued a statement June 14 saying the firm had been cooperating with a federal probe into campaign finance violations and stated that an internal review concluded the “former CEO may have violated federal campaign law by giving directions to reimburse, with his own funds or with corporate funds, employees and others who made such contributions.”
The statement said staff members are not politically active and were not aware of certain federal campaign contribution law requirements.
The federal probe includes the donation of at least $650,000 in unreported funds used in D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign. That money is believed to have come from Mr. Thompson. In addition to the accounting firm, he held a lucrative Medicaid contract with the District through his company D.C. Chartered Health.
After a flurry of activity in which two Gray campaign aides pleaded guilty in May 2012 and a third operative pleaded guilty in July, the pace of the investigation publicly appeared to have slowed until last week, when charges were filed against Mr. Calhoun.
District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly noted Mr. Calhoun was cooperating with the investigation and that his cooperation would be taken into account when he is sentenced Sept. 26. Mr. Calhoun faces up to a year in prison and a fine between $5,000 and $15,000.
While declining to say how many employees might have been involved in the scheme, Mr. MacMahon said Thursday that he expects additional people to be charged.
“What you’re going to see in this courthouse now for a while over the summer is people who trusted Jeffrey Thompson and made contributions on his behalf all being brought through the system and being dealt with the same way Mr. Calhoun was today,” he said.