In 2012, 77 arsons plagued a small, rural community on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Over the span of five months, Accomack County residents and firefighters could not pin down the culprit, who was widely suspected to be a member of their community.
A former DC mayoral candidate claims now-Mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign paid him to stay in the race and attack their opponents, and promised him a city job if Gray won. Washington Post reporter Nikita Stewart joins Kojo to talk about the allegations by Sulaimon Brown, who was fired last week from his D.C. government post.
- Nikita Stewart Reporter, The Washington Post
In August 2010, then-mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown came to our studios to talk about his campaign and why he thought he was uniquely qualified to be mayor:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA minor candidate from last year's mayoral race in D.C. has become a major PR problem for the city's new mayor, Vincent Gray. Sulaimon Brown, a bit player on the 2010 contest, who won only a handful of votes told the Washington Post this weekend that he took cash payments from Gray's campaign that allowed him to stay in the race and launch attacks against their common opponent, then Mayor Adrian Fenty. Brown claims that he made the deal in exchange for a job in the Gray administration, a job that he ultimately obtained but was soon dismissed from after report service about both the salary of the position and about his legal record.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIGray has ordered an investigation into Brown's allegations and members of his campaign have denied any wrong doing. But the fallout from the hysteria is already weighing heavily on his office during the early days of his tenure. Joining us now from studios at The Washington Post is Nikita Stewart, the reporter who wrote the story about the cell phone calls exchanged between Sulaimon Brown and members of the Vincent Gray campaign. Nikita Stewart, thank you for joining us.
MS. NIKITA STEWARTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIFor a lot of people who followed the mayoral campaign last year, Sulaimon Brown was a bit of a mystery, an unknown, unemployed candidate who showed up to event after event launching attacks on then Mayor Adrian Fenty. He told you that he was able to keep his campaign afloat with cash payments he was receiving from Vincent Gray's campaign. What exactly did he admit to you when you interviewed him? And what evidence is there to suggest that he might be telling the truth?
STEWARTWell, I tell you, you know, he called me up. We met. He tells me the story about getting these alleged cash payments. We have not been able to independently verify those. However, you know, he kept telling me that he had all these conversations with them. I pulled his phone records. And I was quite surprised that all of the back and forth between him and members of the mayor's campaign, and some of the conversations seemed long. And they went into December. And ultimately, he got a $110,000 job. Everybody was asking why, and he offered an explanation of why, and we felt obligated to tell his side of the story.
NNAMDITwenty-nine conversations, according to his cell phone records, between June and the September 14 Democratic primary from phone numbers belonging to Gray or people who were involved in his campaign. That does, in fact, seem excessive. But the allegations of cash payments, those only surfaced in the last few days. He only brought that up with you in your later conversation?
STEWARTNo. In the very first conversation I had with him, the day after he crashed the mayor's news conference.
STEWART.And he went on other interviews, and I know that he, you know, went on, I guess, TBD, what are we calling them now? (laugh)
NNAMDITBD for today. (laugh)
STEWARTOkay. We're still calling it TBD?
NNAMDITo be determined later, yes, mm-hmm.
STEWARTAnd, you know, I will tell you that I told him that I would prefer that he not say anything until I could fully investigate everything that he was saying. So...
STEWART...he had already told me he just didn't disclose the information to the other -- to other reporters.
NNAMDIFollowing up on the cash payments for one second. You looked at the deposits that were made into his campaign account and tried to compare them with both the times and the amounts he said he was given in addition to which, from the campaign records, the people who he claimed had made those donations and you, at the very least, found that at least one, maybe more of the people from whom he came -- those donations came did not contribute to his campaign at all.
STEWARTThat's correct. You know, this woman was very surprised. She was like, what? You know, I sent her the record and she's like, this is bogus. She has no idea how he got his name. I don't know yet. He -- you know, I'll tell you, Sulaimon Brown is an interesting person. He keeps interesting records. (laugh) And, you know, all I can say is that this is -- as you said, at the beginning of, you know, introducing this little segment that this is a PR nightmare and...
STEWART...I don't understand why he was given a job if the campaign found him so annoying and such a nuisance.
NNAMDIThere are several questions. We've extended an invitation to Mayor Gray to be on the Politics Hour on Friday because clearly a lot of questions have to be answered, among them why is it that a guy who was so peripheral to the campaign was quote "was courted by so many telephone calls?" At what point, why did somebody not just say, go away, stop bothering us? Anyway, if you’d like to join the conversation, you may have seen Nikita's front-page story in The Washington Post yesterday, you can call us at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. How have these recent hiring scandals affected your expectations for the new Mayor Vincent Gray? 800-433-8850. Nikita, it would seem that Sulaimon Brown essentially told you that he broke the law. What consequences are there for what he claims he did?
STEWARTOh, we're not sure yet. We don't know if this will be a federal investigation or an Office of Campaign Finance investigation. Obviously, Office of Campaign Finance is going to have to look at this. You know, he doesn't think that he's gonna get a fair shake with campaign finance. We know they've had some interesting rulings over the past year.
STEWARTAnd so, I have no idea how this is all going to turn out.
NNAMDIBecause Mayor Gray says he has called on the attorney general to investigate, but others say, look, since he appointed the attorney general who has not yet been confirmed, that might not be a good position to put him in. So they're saying either the inspector general or the U.S. Attorney's Office should probably be the one to investigate on this.
STEWARTYes. And, you know, it's interesting because Mayor Gray, when he was council chairman and, you know, other councilmembers were concerned about then-Attorney General Peter Nickles looking into, you know, the accusations against Mayor Fenty because they said there, you know, there was a conflict of interest there because the mayor appoints the attorney general. So, you know, a lot of councilmembers came out early, and then Council Chairman Kwame Brown issued a statement last night saying that, you know, he will ask the inspector general to look at this.
NNAMDIBrown provided you, as we mentioned earlier, with cell phone records that prove there was contact between him, Gray, his campaign chairman and a campaign consultant on numerous occasions last summer. What does this contact reveal to us about their relationship?
STEWARTI don't know. (laugh) It just reveals that there were a lot of conversations. And I can tell you that, you know, Howard Brooks had said he, you know, wanted to compliment him on, you know, his performance at a forum, and from then on he would talk to him about the forums. Mayor Gray doesn't recall the 14-minute conversation he had with him on July 15. You know, I just -- (laugh) I don't know what to say except that they were talking to him obviously.
NNAMDIWell, you're not the one who has to provide the answers to these questions. But here is Adam in Washington, D.C., who might be able to help us here. Adam, this would be Adam Rubinson, is it not?
MR. ADAM RUBINSONCorrect. Correct. Hi, Kojo. Hi, Nikita.
NNAMDIHi, Adam. Hi, Adam.
NNAMDIAdam Rubinson, for those of our listeners who may be unfamiliar, was the campaign manager.
RUBINSONThat's right. I was the campaign manager for Vince throughout most of the campaign, particularly through the primary. And, you know, just three points I wanted to make. One is that on behalf of the hundreds of people who gave our time to the campaign in order to restore character, integrity to government and reverse what we saw as the very, very questionable nature of how business was conducted in the prior administration, we share what Vince said, what the mayor said yesterday, which is that if true, these accusations are absolutely appalling and unacceptable and do not represent the kind of campaign we were running, the reason why many of us took off from jobs part time or full time to do this, and frankly the reason why we see Vince Gray was even in the race.
RUBINSONBut the other thing I wanted to say is that, you know, I was someone who was with Vince Gray an awful lot during the course of those six months. In many, many, many closed-door meetings, in all of the daily strategic meetings that the inner circle had about how we were conducting our campaign, in not any meeting did anyone say anything along the lines of, hey, how do we leverage Sulaimon Brown to our advantage? We see him as a strategic asset that helps Vince Gray win the election. At no time did the mayor, then candidate, ever turn to me or anyone I know of and say, hey, this is the guy we wanna help out. Let's figure out how we can help this guy out 'cause we see he helps our campaign.
NNAMDIDid anyone ever say, Adam, we've been receiving a lot of telephone calls from Sulaimon Brown asking about a job? What should we do about this? And if so, what did you say?
RUBINSONNo one ever, ever, ever said anything like that to me about him. And, you know, the thing about this -- I mean, obviously, this -- I wanna make clear 'cause, you know, Nikita, one thing you had mentioned at the top of your article the other day was the allegations that this was the campaign that did this. And, you know, speaking on behalf of the campaign, I could say that the campaign didn't do this. These accusations, if true, which I don't believe they are, but if they are true, were definitely done outside the auspices -- would have been done outside the auspices of the campaign because it's totally illogical why a campaign -- when you think of all these people who actually really have constituencies, why a campaign would, A, take the risk, B, act completely unethically, and C, look at this individual as somebody who would be a strategic asset to the campaign? I mean, he was one of hundreds and hundreds of people that were supporting Vince Gray and come up to people...
NNAMDIWell, this guy actually wasn't supporting Vince Gray. This guy was running against Vince Gray and against Adrian Fenty. And so, the notion that he was having all of these telephone calls with at least three people in the Gray administration, in the Gray campaign, including Vincent Gray himself, at least gives the impression that if not you, Adam, somebody was taking Sulaimon Brown seriously.
RUBINSONYou know, I could speak for myself and say that hundreds and hundreds of people come up to me all the time --and, Nikita, you know this from being at all these events -- they come up to us all the time at events, at forums, at, you know, at campaign events, and they make calls and they come by the office. You know, one of the parts of running a campaign is you -- a lot of people wanna reach out and touch you. And what set Sulaimon apart from other folks was that he got 2,000 signatures to get on the ballot. He was a candidate. But there was no question he was at all these events, and it was very clear that, you know, he would say at all these events that he was supportive of Vince, and he would out and out say that if you're gonna not vote for him, you should vote for Vince Gray.
RUBINSONAnd so, you know, folks will talk to you at these things. And I'm sure he made tons of phone calls and text to people, and people wanna be nice to people. They don't want to tell them to go buzz off. They want to -- they listen to what people have to say.
NNAMDIWell, go bug off may have seemed to some people to be an appropriate response in one of these situations. Nikita, I don't know if you have any responses or questions for Adam Rubinson.
STEWARTYou know, the only response I have is that with -- saying the campaign, Lorraine Green was campaign chairman, and Howard Brooks was paid $44,000 as a consultant, and that's why, you know, a broader campaign was used in the lead.
RUBINSONRight. And the point I'm making is -- and I'm not saying that -- you know, of course Lorraine Green was the campaign chair. But at no time in any -- as part of the campaign structure, as part of the daily meeting or any kind of strategic meeting, or any kind -- did Lorraine ever -- you know -- first of all, you know, Lorraine did the work that campaign chairs usually do. She was not part of the day-to-day, you know, strategic discussions 'cause she didn't wanna be and she had a day job.
RUBINSONBut at no point did Lorraine ever come in and try to -- and say, hey, listen, this is the strategy we wanna do here. If anybody did this kind of stuff, it would have been done on their own time and is not part of campaign meetings, campaign structure and the campaign command and control. It would have been done outside of that. And as for Mr. Brooks, I'm aware of the fact that he -- basically the article I read -- that, you know, he apparently played a large role in the campaign during the general, and also during the get out to vote operations.
RUBINSONBut, you know, he was not somebody who was on the day-to-day staff, you know, on a daily basis. He was one of the many people who was helping out with the campaign of which the extended group is considerable.
NNAMDIWe'll have to see how these investigations play out. But, Adam Rubinson, thank you very much for your call, unless you wanted to stay on the while -- on the line a while longer while we talk to some other people. You may have other questions that you like to answer. Can you stick around?
NNAMDII'll have to put you on hold in order to do that, but you can still continue to listen on the telephone. Nikita Stewart, you did a lot of reporting last year about accusations of cronyism that followed former Mayor Adrian Fenty, more specifically about whether he steered contracts to Omar Karim, who was a member of the same fraternity as Fenty. But Karim's brother, Talib Karim, is now a part of the hiring scandals trailing Vincent Gray. Can you explain?
STEWART(laugh) Yeah. I wish I could explain that. I can't. All I can tell you is that during the election, you know, Talib Karim, you know, surprised everyone by, you know, announcing at a -- I think it was a Muslim Democratic caucus meeting that, you know, he believed in Vincent Gray, you know. So that was -- you know, it gave a little boost to the campaign. I mean, the campaign -- you know, it already looked like Mayor Gray was going to win. He was gonna be mayor.
STEWARTBut it was an interesting turn of events. I remember I got calls that night because the meeting was at night. My phone, you know, immediately started ringing like, oh, my gosh, you should have been at that meeting. Omar Karim's brother said he supports Vincent Gray, so...
NNAMDIIt made a bit of a splash.
NNAMDIHere is Mike in Washington, D.C. Mike, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEYes. I think that Mayor Gray needs to ask why The Washington Post continually creates a muck-racking campaign against his election. I watched -- during the election, while Susan Dumphrey (sp?) on MSNBC was interviewing a Post reporter, she asked him -- they were talking about the election. And she made a comment on two occasions during that interview, we only need 80,000 more Washingtonians to come out and vote. And she said it twice to The Washington Post reporter, like she was trying to say that if 80,000 more people will come out, Fenty can be elected. And then I watched...
NNAMDIWell -- one second. One second. Please don't put what an MSNBC reporter said to a Washington Post reporter on Nikita Stewart. If you think that The Washington Post is against Vincent Gray, did you feel the same way about Nikita Stewart's reporting on Adrian Fenty? 'Cause Adrian Fenty's people felt that she was a nuisance.
MIKEWell, Adrian Fenty was a cutthroat politician.
NNAMDIOh, so it was okay. It was okay. It was okay then for her to say those things about Adrian Fenty, but not to do that kind of reporting about Vincent Gray is what you seem to be saying, Mike.
MIKEI think The Washington Post is disrespecting the Anacostia black populace of Washington's vote. It's like almost they're saying...
NNAMDIBut wait a minute. Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike. One second. They were not disrespecting anybody when they probed Adrian Fenty. But when they probed Vincent Gray, they're disrespecting Anacostia?
MIKEI don't think Adrian Fenty was probed that hard himself. I think that Mayor Gray was just elected. And all of a sudden...
NNAMDIWait a minute. You don't think Adrian Fenty -- let's have Nikita Stewart chime in a little bit. Nikita, how hard was Adrian Fenty probed?
STEWARTYou know, I would say that we looked at him very hard, especially (laugh) towards the end of his tenure. You know, my stories, you know, actually gave Gray a platform to run on this idea of ending cronyism in the city. The Trout report -- that's what they're calling it because Atty. Robert Trout is independently investigating what happened with those contracts last year that were awarded to firms that had ties to Mayor Fenty -- is supposed to come out on Friday. We'll see what it says. I'm not sure what it says. If it says something big, it could overshadow this current (laugh) turn of events.
NNAMDIHere is Shriram (sp?) in Chevy Chase, Md. Mike, thank you for your call. Shriram, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHRIRAMThank you very much, Kojo. First of all, congratulations to Nikita for doing this coverage. It was a riveting article. It had lots of facts, which, I think, one should try to verify. What I can't understand is how Mr. Gray cannot recall all these conversations, many of which were made, apparently, from his own cell phone, not his office, not his office phone, not his business phone. And second, I heard Mr. Rubenstein and his absolute defense of Mr. Gray. Isn't that -- how can you take his word if that is the same Mr. Rubenstein who got Mr. Gray into George Washington, into his fraternity and all that? So, obviously, you can stand for him. Third, that sound like she doth protest too much, as they said in Hamlet.
NNAMDINo, I think you're confusing one person with another.
STEWARTWell, you know, if I can correct a couple of things...
NNAMDIYes. Please do correct. Yes.
STEWART(laugh) One is, you know, if you look at our chart, you know, we put all of the numbers with the 29 calls. You know, we combined all of those. But there was just one phone call that Gray made to Brown, and it was 14 minutes. The rest of the calls came from the aides that Brown said that he was working with.
NNAMDIAnd let me have Adam clarify for you exactly who he is. Adam -- oops, I can't get Adam Rubinson on the air any longer. Let me see if I can do that if I put Shriram on hold. No, I don't think Adam is there any longer. But he is not the one who helped Vincent Gray...
NNAMDI...integrate the fraternity at George Washington University.
STEWARTNo. In fact, he's much younger than Mayor Gray. (laugh)
NNAMDIExactly right. That's not the same person. He was, however, the campaign manager. We ran out of time. Nikita Stewart, thank you so much for joining us.
STEWARTThank you for having me.
NNAMDINikita Stewart is a reporter for The Washington Post. She joined us from studios at The Washington Post. As I said, we've invited Mayor Gray to join us for "The Politics Hour" this Friday. We are awaiting his response to that. We'll be keeping track of this issue. Of course we'll also be covering it on WAMU 88.5 News where Patrick Madden is on the story. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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