Over the past 40 years, the field of behavioral economics has emerged to explain why humans make irrational decisions. We talk with one of the pioneers of the field to find out what’s behind the choices we make, and how we can use this knowledge for good.
For the past several years, revelations have slowly come out about the potential influence of a secretly-funded “shadow campaign” in D.C.’s 2010 mayoral election. The money at the center of the alleged shadow campaign is connected to prolific political fundraiser and local businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who’s network is connected to many other candidates in our region and beyond. We learn about the latest breaking details in the federal corruption probe into our region’s political system.
- Nikita Stewart Reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast why a proposed parkway connecting two suburban counties in Virginia has become one of the most politically explosive issues in the commonwealth.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, the slowly burning scandal over the money behind Washington D.C.'s local political system, for the past several years federal authorities have been circling around Jeffery Thompson a local businessman here in Washington and prolific fundraiser for political candidates.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAll signs indicate that investigators are focusing on allegations that Thompson secretly funded an off the books shadow campaign that influenced the District's mayoral election three years ago. And the pace of their probe is picking up.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINews is breaking today that a field organizer linked to Thompson has been charged with lying to investigators and that another guilty plea is expected soon in federal court.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the latest revelations and the potential influence of Thompson's money on other campaigns in the region and across the county is Nikita Stewart. She's a reporter for "The Washington Post." She joins us from studios at "The Post." Nikita, thank you for joining us.
MS. NIKITA STEWARTThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou've been reporting on the influence of an alleged shadow campaign on D.C.'s 2010 mayoral race for quite some time now. More and more details on about the shadow campaign and how it may have helped Vincent Gray become mayor are coming into view.
NNAMDIAnd another shoe dropped this morning with the news that a field organizer linked to Thompson has been hit with federal charges. Who is Vernon Hawkins and what do you think today's charges mean for what most people assume is a much bigger investigation into Thompson himself?
STEWARTYes. Well, this is a, you know, a charge that we've been waiting on for a while. Vernon Hawkins is a very close friend to Mayor Vincent C. Gray. He works on the mayor's campaigns for Ward 7 council member, for a council chairman and then for Mayor in 2010.
STEWARTWhat's interesting about the 2010 race is that, you know, Mr. Hawkins was actually someone who we were told was taking a backseat during the election because, I'm sure many of your longtime listeners remember Vernon Hawkins from the 1980s and 1990s as being part of the Barry administration and he was the head of the Department of Human Services.
STEWARTHe ran into some issues during the control board era. You know, there was a big brawl, well, I don't know if you'd call it a brawl since there was no physical action, but there was a dispute between the financial control board and then Mayor Marion Barry over whether Vernon Hawkins should resign.
STEWARTAnd he did end up resigning and, but he still remained very much a part of the D.C. political process and according many folks that we've talked to he was a manager of the shadow campaign for Vincent Gray in 2010.
NNAMDIPart of what you reported on today was about how Jeffery Thompson's money is connected to a lot more than this alleged shadow campaign that his money can be traced to Linda Cropp's 2006 race for mayor, numerous D.C. council campaigns.
NNAMDIWhat are we learning about the full extent to which Thompson's money may have influenced D.C.'s political system and what are we learning about the legality of those contributions?
STEWARTWell, we're learning that there was a lot of behind the scenes action going on with these campaigns dating back several years before the shadow campaign. We were able to document another seven candidates other than Mayor Vincent C. Gray whom allegedly received funds from Thompson that, you know, they may not have known about.
STEWARTThis was one of those operations where it's basically like this campaign needs some t-shirts or this campaign could use some canvassers. And spending that money and not reporting and that apparently is what was going on and in 2010 it just escalated into $653,000 effort.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nikita Stewart. She's a reporter at "The Washington Post." You can call us at 800-433-8850. How have the string of federal charges related to recent political campaigns in the District of Columbia affected your view of the city's political system and of the city's campaign financing laws?
NNAMDI800-433-8850, you can send email to email@example.com. Nikita, you recently traced Jeffery Thompson's story all the way back to his hometown in Jamaica and you recently wrote a profile about him that depicted a man who managed to carry a great amount of influence, but still remained relatively unknown to most people. What did you find most informative about looking into Thompson's personal history?
STEWARTYou know, a lot of people described him as eccentric and when I went to Jamaica I learned that basically it was just his way of life and this was what happened to him as a child and how he grew up as a child, you know, definitely shaped him into the businessman who we know now.
STEWARTBack in Jamaica, for example, you know, his family they weren't like super wealthy but they had a lot of influence in their small town. His grandparents owned a general store and people had to go to them for their goods, you know, like once a year and they operated on a credit system.
STEWARTAnd to me that's very similar to the way we have learned Jeffery Thompson operated in the District. Basically doing favors, kind of a "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours." That's how he operated but on a much larger scale with millions and millions of dollars.
NNAMDIBy most accounts including yours part of Thompson's motivation for dispensing money has been about protecting the business he was doing with the city. Business that until recently included a healthcare contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
NNAMDIWhat did you learn about how he managed to build his fortune to begin with? You reported that Thompson actually personally delivered Anthony Williams resume to Marion Barry in the 1990s when Barry was mayor and hiring a chief financial officer for the city. So it was clear that even then he was in an inner circle so to speak.
STEWARTYes, well, you know, everyone knows the Marion Barry comeback story and when Barry returned to office he chose Jeffery Thompson to one of many people, you know, to help him with his transition and Jeffery Thompson was actually on the selection committee for a chief financial officer and an inspector general but in this case we'll focus on the chief financial officer.
STEWARTAnd he happened to be friends with Anthony Williams. He had met him earlier, you know, he had a lot of contacts in the federal government and at that time Anthony Williams was with the Department of Agriculture. They had met through, they had a meeting and they met each other, they hit it off and Jeffery Thompson thought Anthony Williams would make a very good CFO.
STEWARTAnd, you know, as far as we know he was a great CFO and he ended up being a great mayor. But this shows one of those things that you just never know who knows who and what kind of influence, you know, one person has had on our, not just the government but the city.
STEWARTI mean, many people credit how great this city is doing to Anthony Williams and, you know, you can say what you want about Jeffery Thompson but he, you know, had the vision to think that, you know, Anthony Williams could be someone who help the city get out of financial distress.
NNAMDIOne hand delivered resume and the rest is, as they say, is history. Back to your piece today, Nikita, it outlines the role that Vernon Hawkins may have played in Vincent Orange's 2011 campaign for the D.C. Council. And it also delves into how many of the figures involved in the alleged shadow campaign in 2010.
NNAMDIAlso were involved in Orange's campaign. Is this an investigation that could pose a threat to Vincent Orange's future as well?
STEWARTWell, we know for a fact, I mean, Vincent Orange has told us that he is cooperating with an investigation. There is an investigation going on where many of Vincent Orange's campaign staff, they've been interviewed, they're going down to the U.S. Attorney's office, they're talking.
STEWARTI can't show you at this point where it's going to lead, but I can tell you it is yet another public figure in this city who is going to have to answer some questions for many months to come.
NNAMDIDo we know whether Council member Orange is himself a target of the investigation or whether the U.S. Attorney's office is maybe seeking information from him about other investigations?
STEWARTI cannot say that. I am not privy to that information and I…
NNAMDICome on, Nikita, you know everything.
STEWARTNo, and I have not seen, like, you know, an actual target letter so I can't call someone a target of an investigation. I can tell you that they are focused on his election.
NNAMDIWell, we just assume you know everything. What do the people you talk to say where Mayor Vincent C. Gray feels he stands right now? When he was in our studio couple of weeks ago he talked about how he feels that on the merits of performance he has a good case to make for re-election.
STEWARTYes, you know, Mayor Gray has, he has been sticking to a script for about a year now and that is he really wants the people to distinguish his campaign from his administration. And he feels that the city is running very well. I happened to run into him one evening about a week ago and, you know, the last words he said to me were, "The city's running great, isn't it?"
STEWARTAnd I'm like, "Yes, the city is running pretty well." And it's going to be interesting to see if he runs for re-election will voters give him that, I don't know what the word is, leeway or consideration. What they think that a 2010 election that was obviously corrupted, is that different from his administration?
NNAMDIOnto to the telephones. here is Richard in Alexandria, Va. Richard, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
RICHARDHello, how are you, Kojo?
NNAMDII'm well, Richard.
RICHARDI want to thank you for your show. In our household in Alexandria we think you are a superstar.
NNAMDIThat's how I think about Nikita Stewart but go ahead please.
RICHARDOkay, very good. I am not, I've lived in this area for about 12 years in Alexandria but I'm from New York and I don't consider myself a local because I really don't understand the history of D.C. politics et cetera.
RICHARDSo what I can say in answer to your question as to how these recent scandals have affected the way people from the outside view the District. It really just feeds into our notion I suppose that's been created by the media, that D.C. is very corrupt and that left unto themselves D.C. politicians cannot do a good job managing the funds or the public trust with which they've been bestowed.
NNAMDIWell, Richard, I can tell you that the general feeling of people who are here in D.C. who are involved with politics or who look at politics is that there are other jurisdictions around the country. Illinois comes to mind where three successive governors have spent time in jail in which there is a great deal of corruption yet nobody ever challenges the right of those jurisdictions to govern themselves. So you're talking here about an issue that a lot of people in the District of Columbia are particularly sensitive about. I don't know if Nikita Stewart cares to comment.
STEWARTYes, I do. I think it's very unfair of folks to target the city of, you know, especially corrupt -- I've told people before I covered New York and New Jersey before I moved here. There's plenty of corruption in those places. There's plenty of corruption in other jurisdictions. The problem with the city is that it is in fact just a city. And it also operates as a state. So you have all of these responsibilities given to, you know, a handful of people.
STEWARTAnd I think that folks out there who think that the city is especially corrupt, I think they're looking at the fact that we've had three council members in, you know, the span of two years to run into some serious legal troubles. And it's magnified by the fact that, you know, we only have 13 council members and a mayor.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Richard. Nikita, outside of the political fallout, this investigation has already had a massive impact on how the D.C. government does business. For instance, how would you measure the impact of chartered health care, losing its massive contract with the district?
STEWARTOh, I think it's huge, and not just from the aspect of, you know, Jeffrey Thompson, you know, lost a contract or anything like that. We're talking about a service, a program that affected 100,000 residents in this city. People are having to switch over. And then also with the city taking over Chartered Health, you have providers who have been left out in the cold. You have these small businesses who depended on this money from Chartered Health Plan to keep going. And I've heard from several of those contractors who are in a desperate situation right now. And I think that's one of the reasons why Mayor Gray has pushed to go ahead and use city funds to make those providers whole.
NNAMDIOnto Samuel in Washington, D.C. Samuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMUELYeah, hi. I knew Mayor Gray years ago when he was at Covenant House and always considered him to be an honest and decent man. So I'm very confused about all of this, what appears to be substantiated corruption allegations out of this campaign. I'm also confused that the Washington Post in particular, Nikita Stewart notwithstanding, has given much more ink to the corruption allegations in Mayor Gray's administration than it did to say that...
NNAMDIWell, Samuel, allow me to say this before you continue. I had a gentleman who sat in my office during the course of the Adrian Fenty administration ask me what was it that Nikita Stewart had against Adrian Fenty and what was it she had against friends of Adrian Fenty that caused her to do so much reporting alleging some form of either corruption or maybe illegal activity going on with his friends. So Nikita, I guess you get it from successive administrations, don't you?
STEWARTYes, I do. You know, one of the things that I found working covering politics all of these years is that unfortunately there's always going to be some kind of conflict of interest, someone trying to use the system for their own benefit. It happens in every administration. Sometimes it's very small, sometimes it's very big. It happens. It happens in every administration and I feel that it is my job to uncover such actions, such transgressions. And, you know, all I can say is just remember that you have a public trust. You're a public servant. I think sometimes that gets lost.
STEWARTI also think that maybe in elections people get carried away. They get carried away. It's become the win by any means necessary. And I think that's one of the things that we saw going on in 2010. And not just in 2010 but in other elections.
NNAMDISamuel, she seems to be an equal opportunity offender.
SAMUELWell, that's why I said notwithstanding. Nikita Stewart and Courtland Milloy actually did cover Fenty pretty well.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Nikita, we got an email from Davis who says, "What was the need for a shadow campaign? Was this just a way to put more money into the campaign itself? Were they doing illegal things that a traditional campaign would not have been able to do? Please explain."
STEWARTFrom the reporting that I've done, I don't think that they were doing anything that a normal campaign wouldn't be able to do other than you would have to show where all of that money was coming from. And for some reason, they didn't want to document it. I still don't understand why folks were so fearful of upsetting incumbents with the spending that they were doing. But this is the way they chose to do it and unfortunately apparently it's illegal.
NNAMDINikita, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDINikita Stewart is a reporter at the Washington Post. She joins us from studios at the Washington Post. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, why a proposed parkway connecting two suburban counties in Virginia has become one of the most politically explosive issues in the commonwealth. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
An exhibit opening this week at the Newseum explores how the media reported the country’s first televised war.
A pair of children staying in the D.C. General Hospital homeless shelter recently tested positive for lead. While it remains unclear whether they were exposed at the shelter, this news comes on the heels of revelations about the role lead paint exposure had in the life of Freddie Gray, the young man who recently died after a violent interaction with Baltimore police. We find out why the problem of exposure persists and what strides have been made in cleaning up homes over the last few decades.
A WAMU investigative report probes arrests for assaulting a police officer in D.C. We look at why most of those arrested are black and why critics say the law defining assault is too broad.