Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
A prominent D.C. businessman on Monday admitted to financing an illegal shadow campaign to support Vincent Gray in the city’s 2010 mayoral election. Federal prosecutors accused contractor Jeffrey Thompson of illegally funneling more than $2 million to local and national candidates from 2006 to 2012, and that he did so with Gray’s knowledge in 2010. We explore the specific accusations made by the prosecutors in the case, and their implications for D.C.’s political system.
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
- Paul Butler Professor of Law, The Georgetown Law Center; Former Federal Prosecutor; author "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice" (New Press)
- Nikita Stewart Reporter, The New York Times; Former 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. Federal prosecutors on Monday move forward with a public corruption case with the potential to turn D.C.'s political system completely on its head. Local businessman, Jeffrey Thompson, a contractor who has made millions from work with the city admitted in court that he illegally funneled large sums of money into off-the-book shadow schemes that corrupted a series of local and federal elections, including the one that put current D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray in office four years ago.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMoreover, Thompson said in court that Gray was fully aware of the scheme at work in his race and even asked him to finance it. Gray, who is running for re-election and facing a competitive primary in just three weeks maintained on Monday that he did nothing wrong and that Thompson is lying to prosecutors. But the new developments in the investigation into D.C.'s last mayoral race may have completely reset the dynamics for the one the city is about to hold.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the accusations put forth by prosecutors and the implications for the city's political system is Nikita Stewart. She's a reporter for The New York Times. She is a former reporter for The Washington Post, where she built the story from the -- about the potential shadow in D.C.'s 2010 mayoral election. She joins us from studios at the New York Times. Nikita Stewart, thank you for joining us.
MS. NIKITA STEWARTThank you for having me. It's so great to your voice.
NNAMDISo great to hear you. Come back. And joining us in studio here is Patrick Madden. He's a reporter for WAMU 88.5. Patrick, always a pleasure.
MR. PATRICK MADDENGreat to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Paul Butler. He's a professor of law at The Georgetown Law Center. He's a former federal prosecutor and author of the book, "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice." Paul Butler, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.
MR. PAUL BUTLERHey. Hey, Kojo, great to be here.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. How do the newest developments in the criminal investigation into D.C.'s last mayoral election affect your perspective about the city's current race for mayor? Call us, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Patrick, Jeffrey Thompson admitted guilt in court yesterday to funneling millions of dollars into illegal underground campaigns to back the political candidates he preferred nationally, locally.
NNAMDIIn the run-up to this moment, there was a series of guilty pleas from people who admitted to being part of a scheme that Thompson spearheaded to corrupt D.C.'s 2010 mayoral election, but this is the first time that it's been alleged openly in court. And Vincent Gray, who won that race and the man who Thompson supported, knew about what was going on and even approved of it beforehand.
NNAMDIWhat did we learn yesterday about Gray's potential involvement in any illegal campaign and what he might have known such a scheme?
MADDENRight. So that was the big bombshell in yesterday's court hearing that Gray not only was aware of the shadow campaign effort to help him get elected, which is something that Gray, to this point, maintains is not true but also that Gray personally asked Thompson for the funds. So he actually had a dinner -- there was a dinner meeting at Jeanne Clark Harris' apartment. And Gray handed to Thompson a one-page document detailing how $425,000 would be spent in a get-out-the-vote operation that would be coordinated with his campaign.
MADDENSo that was really sort of the critical piece that was unveiled by prosecutors yesterday.
NNAMDIThompson said in court that his secret spending on elections was something that was about a lot more than Gray's mayoral campaign. How far reaching were the schemes?
MADDENWell, as you mentioned, we're talking about dozens of local and federal campaigns. This goes all the way back 2006 and also presidential campaign, the 2008 presidential primary, which has been identified as effort to help Hillary Clinton's primary in states like Texas and Indiana. But it's interesting just how much money Thompson was funneling. And it came through two sort of ways. One through straw donors.
MADDENThese were employees, friends, family members that were being -- that were basically told to donate to a specific candidate and then would be reimbursed by Thompson's companies, either -- and basically they would cover their tracks by altering documents that they send to the IRS. And then there were the shadow campaign funds, which were -- which was money spent through the corporation that was given to his associate Jeanne Clark Harris.
MADDENAnd that was spent to sort of help campaign's get-out-the-vote operations, campaign materials. So those were the two ways in which Thompson was trying to help out candidates.
NNAMDII'll be soon asking Nikita more specifics about the 2010 mayoral shadow campaign. But first, for you, Paul Butler, when you look at this from a prosecutorial standpoint, what does Thompson's guilty plea mean for the public officials who are implicated in the scheme he's admitted to orchestrating? On the one hand, prosecutors did not charge Vincent Gray with any crimes yesterday.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen made it clear in his press conference yesterday that his office is coming after those who may have played a part in Thompson's crimes.
MR. RONALD MACHENYear after year, election after election, D.C. were deceived. The people of the District of Columbia deserve the truth. And today, we begin the process of giving it to them. But today also marks a new day because with the collaboration of Mr. Thompson and the many others who have pled guilty in this inquiry, we will now enter a new phase of this investigation seeking to hold accountable all of those -- all those who conspired with them to hide the truth from the public.
MR. RONALD MACHENSo I want to be very clear in our message, our collective message this afternoon. If you participated in backroom, under-the-table deals with Jeff Thompson, I urge you to come forward now and own up to your conduct. I promise you, we are not going away.
NNAMDIPaul Butler, you're a former federal prosecutor. What position does Thompson's guilty plea put people like Gray and others in? Thompson's giving the prosecutors a lot of dirt.
BUTLERYeah. So, Kojo, you mentioned my book, "Let's Get Free: The Hip-Hop Theory of Justice." The hip-hop song go now by Drake where he goes, "started from the bottom, now I'm here." And that's what the prosecutor is doing in this case. This is what you call a pyramid prosecution. So we started out with all these little fish. He's indicted seven people who pled guilty and now he's worked his way up to the next to last guy who was Mr. Thompson.
BUTLERThe big fish is the mayor. And at that extraordinary press conference yesterday, the head prosecutor, Mr. Machen, all but looked into the camera and said: Mayor, you're next. It really was an extraordinary moment because he said we're entering a new phase now. Anybody who's left, you better come in and admit your conduct or you're going to get it.
NNAMDISo that means he is going to go after the big fish, as many of them as he can identify.
BUTLERAnd he asked, well, why aren't you doing it now? And what he said was very telling. He said, the Department of Justice guideline say we have to make sure that we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt. So what prosecutors tell each other is if you go after the king, you have to kill him. So what they're doing is making sure they have all of their ducks in a row, but I never heard such a clear expression from this prosecutor who's normally could be reticent and cautious about what his next move is.
NNAMDINikita Stewart, you started to sketch out the details of this shadow campaign about two years ago. How exactly did it work? Who was a part of it? And what kind of work were they doing on behalf of the candidate Vincent Gray?
STEWARTWell, you know, it was so interesting to read everything yesterday because it filled in a lot of holes for me to know that Mayor Gray allegedly gave Thompson basically an outline of what he wanted spent in the shadow campaign. That was, to me, one of the most damaging things that came out yesterday. But the way it worked, basically the mayor and his folks allegedly wanted to make sure that they were going to win against Fenty.
STEWARTAnd so, you know, this shadow campaign would work parallel to the official campaign. And, you know, it was basically in your face. Both of the offices were side by side. You know, you had some of the same workers kind of. You had the exact same campaign materials, you had the same vendors, but they were being paid out of two different pools of money. And you had some close advisers who had been with Gray for many years. They were part of this shadow campaign.
NNAMDIWhat were the dynamics, this is for you too, Patrick Madden, of this race before the shadow campaign was apparently put to work. All polls from that time indicated voters seem to be happy about the direction the city was headed, but they were starting to sour on Adrian Fenty personally. Looking back on it, does this kind of scheme seem even necessary? A lot of things were breaking Gray's way in early and mid-2010 heading into that primary. First to you, Patrick Madden.
MADDENWell, there are two interesting tensions that were happening. One sort of the reason for the shadow campaign was that Thompson didn't want his support for Gray to be known, because he thought it might affect, I think as he put it in the court document, that this is climate for Charter, which is one of his companies. So that's why there was these straw donors, but not folks that were working in his company, they were actually folks that would -- it would be really difficult to associate with him.
MADDENThat's also why he came up with a code work, a codename, Uncle Earl with Gray. So they were trying to maintain the secrecy so that -- I guess for fear of retribution from Fenty. And also the other sort of tension was this June 10th filing date for the campaign finance. And that was sort of Gray's first chance to show that he was a viable candidate. So they needed to post a big number. I think they wanted to post more money than Fenty had ever raised during the race.
MADDENAnd so, there was pressure from Gray's people to Thompson, saying we need to raise a lot of money. And we want to expedite all these donations coming in. And that was another sort of tension that really made them, I think, take a lot of risk and do a lot of the things they did.
NNAMDIPlease go ahead.
STEWARTI wanted to add something. There's another missing piece to this that people don't understand what was going on that summer, that spring. You know, as much as you have the polls showing that Fenty was falling, you also had a group of longtime D.C. folks who were used to being in power who were no longer in power. They wanted to assure that they were going to win. They didn't necessarily believe the polls.
STEWARTAlso, Gray hired some folks who were not necessarily in the in crown, if you will. They were these new consultants. Folks didn't really know them and they weren't sure they really knew what they were doing and was basically like, let's make sure that we're going to win. Let's go ahead and do this operation on the side. I think that's one of the things that's been missed.
NNAMDIWhat should people know, Paul Butler, about the credibility of Jeffrey Thompson's admissions? U.S. Attorney Ron Machen said during his press conference yesterday that under the plea agreement, if Thompson is not being truthful, his office will be tougher on him. He also said that what Thompson said yesterday is only the tip of the iceberg.
BUTLERWell, Mr. Thompson is officially a snitch. And sometimes snitches have incentives to lie. So the defense will be, well, what's his incentive? He's getting a great deal. So yesterday, he admitted in open court that he spent millions of dollars to corrupt local and national elections over a period of six years. And yet under this plea agreement, he might be able to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. He might not get any prison time.
BUTLERAnd if he does, it might be home detention in his home, which I'm sure is very nice. So what does he have to do in return? He has to deliver the goods. He has to basically bring the evidence for the case against the mayor. And so, the defense will be, he has plenty of incentive to lie.
NNAMDISo he has to bring evidence. It simply can't be his word against Vincent Gray's word, can it?
BUTLERWell, his word is evidence. And that will be part of the defense. So, you know, there's allegation about this smoking-gun document that the mayor handed Mr. Thompson -- this one-page outline of all this criminal stuff that he was supposed to do. So part of the defense will be "Where's that smoking gun?" Now the U./S. attorney has said that some of the documents have been destroyed by Mr. Thompson. How much do you want to bet that's going to be one of the documents?
NNAMDIAnd exactly who is this Jeffrey Thompson? That's a question we will have Nikita Stewart answer for us after a short break. But you can still call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. What questions would you like to see D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray answer about the alleged illegal shadow campaign orchestrated on his behalf in the election that put him in office four years ago? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. The number again, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the aftermath of yesterday's dramatic testimony, a plea deal by D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson. We're talking with Nikita Stewart. She's a reporter for The New York Times -- former reporter for The Washington Post -- where she broke the story about the potential shadow campaign in D.C.'s 2010 mayoral election. Also with us in studio is Patrick Madden, WAMU 88.5 reporter, who led the way in uncovering Jeffrey Thompson's straw-donor network in March of 2012 -- Patrick, uncovering 26 suspicious money orders that were sent to the campaign of a D.C. councilmember in a two-day period.
NNAMDIUsing court and business records, he traced the contributions back to individuals and subsidiary companies, all associated with one Jeffrey Thompson. He joins us in our Washington studio with Paul Butler, who is a former federal prosecutor, a law professor at Georgetown University. We are inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Nikita Stewart, before we go any farther, it's important for us to understand a little more about who Jeffrey Thompson is. This is a person who's made a fortune from his various contracts with District government. I like to say, the taxpayers have the deepest pockets.
NNAMDIBefore you left the Post, you went all the way to Jamaica to better understand his history. So for those who have not been following the reporting for the past few years, who is Jeff Thompson?
STEWARTOh. Jeffrey Thompson is larger than life. He is certainly a character. He grew up in Jamaica in a very rural area. His family farmed. They had a general store. They were by no means rich but they held a lot of power. People came to them for goods, for advice. He returns to Jamaica and, you know, it's like he's Santa Claus. He stands at the gate of his parents' home and he, you know, listens to the problems of people who live in the town. And he gives them money, you know, for school or for crops that didn't turn out right that season.
STEWARTThis is a man who is a philanthropist. He built a business from scratch. And then he -- well, he built an accounting business from scratch with some co-founders. And then he also took over a business, Chartered Health, which at the time was failing, and he built it into -- this was a company that was earning $322 million a year. That was the contract with the city. So when the prosecutors talked yesterday about what was at stake and how desperate Thompson was to hold on to that contract, you have to remember that it was $322 million a year.
NNAMDIHe also seemed to be pretty determined to prevent Adrian Fenty from getting into office to begin with, when he ran back in 2006, when Thompson heavily supported then-city council chairperson, Linda Cropp. Tell us a little bit about why.
STEWARTWell, I think he always had a relationship with Linda Cropp. He did not necessarily have a relationship with Adrian Fenty. And he really got into the game late with supporting Adrian Fenty. And he never managed to get into the good graces of Fenty, despite trying to do things like hiring friends of Fenty in his company -- even hiring Fenty's sister-in-law. Nothing worked. And he found himself in a position where the then-Attorney General for D.C. Peter Nickles went after Chartered for, you know, a settlement. And he ended up having to pay $12 million. He wasn't happy.
STEWARTHe was afraid his contract was at stake. And according to prosecutors, that drove him to want to support Gray and to make sure that Fenty did not return to office.
NNAMDIHe felt vulnerable under Fenty, Patrick Madden, huh?
MADDENRight. And that settlement, that issue with, I believe it involved dental rates -- but it was -- it's a critical part of this, because right after Gray was elected, the settlement -- they reached a settlement in Thompson's favor. And this has been a big back and forth between prosecutors and the city's attorney general to get documents related to that settlement. And there was something that -- I have to go through the court documents again -- but it came up at the end, questions about, I think it was Jeanne Clarke Harris asking the mayor -- or asking, not the mayor, but the Gray administration about the settlement.
MADDENSo that was one of the things that prosecutors have been looking at, because we're talking about all of the ways that Thompson allegedly has tried to influence candidates; but what is he trying to get in return?
NNAMDIPaul Butler, before I go to the phones, what is at risk here for Ron Machen? During the 2012 election season, Attorney General Eric Holder put out a memo with clear guidelines to federal prosecutors discouraging them from bringing public corruption cases against elected officials in the run-up to an election. Well, that's where we are. Here we have a major legal development just three weeks before an election. Talk a little bit about how a prosecutor decides if and when to initiate this kind of action.
BUTLERSo the Department of Justice guidelines say you can't bring a case before an election with the intent of influencing the election. So this has been a very deliberate, slow investigation of Mayor Gray. But, again, they had to go through lots of other folks until they got to him. They still haven't actually gotten to him. Mr. Thompson has one of the most tenacious lawyers in the city, Brendan Sullivan, who's fought him tooth-and-nail, including by going all the way up to the Supreme Court to try to get some documents suppressed.
BUTLERSo it's probably not Mr. Machen's fault that the investigation has taken so long. You know, in a case like this, there's never really a great time. It would have been worse -- it would have been seen as more political, if it happened the week before the primary or after the primary or before the general election. So, again, when's the best time? That's anybody's guess.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones now. Here is Pepper in Washington D.C. Pepper, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEPPERHi, Kojo. I just wanted to bring up a point to all the, you know, reporters there. Would any of this have come out, had it not been for Sulaimon Brown?
PEPPERI mean would anything been on...
STEWARTYes. Sulaimon Brown, I think, really is the reason why people started paying attention. There's no doubt in my mind about that. However, I also thing that there were some campaign finance records that lots of people thought looked fishy. You had Alan Suderman looking at them. I was taking a look at them. Patrick Madden was looking at them. And, you know, one of the things you could see from the chart yesterday, is how Thompson's money escalated through the years. You know, it started off small, with the shadow campaigns, and they got bigger and bigger and bigger.
STEWARTAnd when it came down to the straw donors, you know, it used to be that he would go through the trouble of reimbursing the employees. And at the end, if you remember Patrick, they basically got sloppy. They basically went out and got money orders and wrote in the names of the contributors. And that was definitely a red flag to anyone who bothered to look to see if these were money orders or if they were checks. And I think some of that would have come to light eventually. But I think it might not have come to light until now.
STEWARTI think we would have been another three years down the road and possibly beyond the statute of limitations before we found anything of this -- any of this out.
STEWARTSo Sulaimon Brown definitely deserves credit.
MADDENYeah, I was just going to agree with Nikita. It definitely seemed, especially at the end, careless with the money orders, which we're now learning more in these -- in the court documents, that Thompson himself went and purchased the money orders and then filled them out in the names of others. But, of course, they had sequential, you know, numbers on these things. And Nikita's right in terms of just this -- the straw-donor network grew and grew. And, of course, I would imagine that's just -- very hard to keep that all under wraps over time.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Adrian, in which Adrian says, "Even in WAMU's normally prudent and always nearly excellent -- nearly always excellent coverage, I have yet to hear the word allegation or alleged by any of the participants in the Gray matter. Perhaps the mayor is guilty as sin, perhaps not. But like all citizens, the Constitution requires fairness and due process. The witch hunt should stand in recess until we hear from all of the alleged witnesses. I'm reserving judgment."
NNAMDIWell, Adrian, maybe we may not have been using the alleged as often as we should, but this is not going to stand in recess until we hear from all of the alleged witnesses. There are going to be bits of information trickling out as the U.S. Attorney's office, frankly, provides them to the media. Here, now, is Matt in Washington D.C. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHi. Thanks for taking my call, Kojo. This is interesting. I mean I may not be versed very well in campaign finance or the reform of it, but -- and I've met a few of these participants personally, actually, which is strange. And I have to agree with the (word?) that these seem like advocates for some side of the cave that people that are talking on the show, rather than, you know, objective reporting. Please just fill us in with what, you know, these terms like shadow financing and shadow campaigns, and then straw -- straw donors, rather than straw purchasers. These are all the key words.
MATTPlease explain how donating to a campaign is shadowy and keeping your identity while donating to a campaign secret is shadowy. That's what sounds so strange. Like...
NNAMDIOkay. Well, we can explain that. Patrick Madden can anyway. Patrick.
MADDENYeah. I can tackle sort of the straw donor part. And that's just essentially how Thompson was having his co-workers, friends, independent contractors, associates, relatives and their relatives -- directing them to make contributions to a specific candidate...
NNAMDIBecause one individual cannot, under the laws of the District of Columbia, donate $668,000 to a campaign. That would be illegal. Go ahead, Pat.
MADDENExactly. And then Thompson would -- because he is in, you know, has an accounting form, would then, through his company, you know, record them as bonuses or advances or other payments and sort of just sort of cover the tracks. But the people would be reimbursed for directing all these payments to a candidate. And, again, that's -- and, you know, once you mass up enough of these straw donors, that's a lot of influence.
BUTLERYou know, the callers are right to remind us that these are allegations. And we really haven't heard -- not from the mayor, who we have heard from -- but we haven't heard from the defense attorney. Mr. Thompson got such a great deal in this case, in part, because he has an excellent defense attorney. But, guess what? He's not the only one in this investigation with a great lawyer. The mayor's being represented by Robert Bennett...
BUTLER...one of the best in the city. And part of what he's going to say is, look, this is how politics in D.C. gets paid. So what's the big deal here? The city's biggest contractor gives local politicians lots of money. Duh.
NNAMDINikita Stewart, care to add to that?
STEWARTSure. Well, I'll address the shadow campaign. When I first reported what we would learn to be -- what we now call the shadow campaign, it was back when the homes were raided of Jeanne Clarke Harris and of Jeffrey Thompson. In the story, I wrote that there was unreported spending. That's basically what I called it, it was unreported spending. And that would be illegal. And what I found, when I started reporting, is that the workers -- the workers of the official Gray campaign and some of the workers of the unofficial campaign were calling the unofficial, unreported campaign, the shadow campaign.
STEWARTAnd it stuck. And that is what the prosecutors call it. And that's how we came up with shadow campaign. It's now part of the D.C. lingo. It's now no longer in quotes. And that's how shadow campaign came about.
NNAMDIMatt, does that answer your question?
NNAMDIDoes that answer your question?
MATTWell, I mean, I just don't understand using lingo in reporting. I mean, it's -- I mean, that's what it is, is lingo. You're just -- you're just putting out words that have connotation to them. And in straw -- you didn't reference the word straw, when they're using that term in other -- in other references throughout news. It's just a strange term to be using, a straw donor. I mean, you can donate to campaigns...
NNAMDIWithout explanation. And I was hoping that what our reporters and lawyer provided it was, in fact, an explanation.
STEWARTWell, it was -- it's kind of like Watergate and whatnot, so...
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Matt. We move on to Cheryl in Washington D.C. Cheryl, your turn.
CHERYLYes, good afternoon. I, you know, the court documents in the case of Thompson has indicated that Adrian Fenty, Muriel Bowser, Dave Catania and Vincent Gray were involved in some sort of -- receiving straw donations. So what I'd like to know is, how common are these phenomena -- straw donations, shadow campaigns? And it seems to travel all the way up to the national level. So I'm just wondering, can we get a little more substantive info about why this occurred and why it's so glamorous and attractive? Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, you know that we're talking about unreported donations, because reported -- donations are supposed to be reported. And so that is a partial reason why we're using the word straw in this case. But when you talk about federal campaigns, there was an admission by Jeffrey Thompson in court yesterday, that he did make unreported contributions to the campaign of Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. But Patrick Madden, you might want to talk about the frequency with which this occurs, because you've done a series on this.
MADDENYeah, I mean, I think you'll -- as you mention, I think you'll find this in a lot of places. But it comes down to, I think, two things. One, you have these campaign limits, which say how much you can give as an individual to a candidate. So obviously one way around that would be to have other people give money under your direction.
NNAMDIAnd that's what would be considered as straw donors.
MADDENRight, or a conduit. And the -- yeah.
BUTLERWell, part of the concern, I think, for Mayor Gray will be, well we really don't know how often this happens, because we don't normally have three-year federal investigations of campaigns. So why, Mayor Gray will ask, are they picking on me? There was also allegations that some of Mr. Thompson's money went to Hilary Clinton. There isn't an investigation of her. And in fact, a U.S. attorney was careful to say yesterday, in both the indictment and the press conference, that there was no evidence that she knew.
NNAMDIAllow me to turn to the elephant in the room in Washington, which may be getting smaller, but it is still nevertheless an elephant. This is Washington D.C. we're talking about. Questions of race are never very far from the surface. Here we have a black prosecutor and a deputy pursuing a legal case against a black incumbent mayor. Paul Butler, why is that significant?
BUTLERBecause we have a history here. And the last time we went down this row with our mayor -- and again we haven't gotten to an actual prosecution of the mayor yet -- but the last time we had one, we had a white prosecutor. All of the head prosecutors in D.C. had always been white. And we had an African-American mayor. And the concern was that the mayor had been set up. And in a very real way, he had been.
BUTLERHere, we don't have any kind of sting operation, and indeed we have a prosecutor who has a lot of credibility in the African-American community -- not because of this case, but because of the way that he has reached out in other areas to the community, and especially to the communities east of the river, to let them know that he's interested in more than just locking up folks. So I think he's got trust that other prosecutors don't have. So I don't think that race is going to be as much of an issue here as it has been in some other public corruption cases.
NNAMDIOn to the -- oh, please go ahead, Nikita.
STEWARTOh, I was going to say, that was one of my last stories at the -- well, that was my last byline at The Washington Post. It was for the magazine.
STEWARTAnd I wrote about that very issue, about the prosecutors in fact being African-American. And many of the folks who have been indicted, who have left office, actually all of them, have been African-American. So it's definitely an issue. I think it's something that they both struggle with, but they believe they have to do a job. And when I say they, I'm referring to Vince Cohen, his deputy, and Ron Machen, the U.S. attorney.
NNAMDIPatrick Madden, WAMU 88.5 recently partnered with NBC 4 to conduct a mayoral poll, and we found that Mayor Gray had an eight-point lead over his closest competitor with 28 percent support compared to 20 percent for Muriel Bowser. Digging into that data, we found that black voters were solidly behind the mayor and that there was perhaps some skepticism about these ethics questions surrounding the mayor. Do you think Thompson's guilty plea and the aforementioned fact that both the prosecutor and his deputy are African-Americans will move the needle in that constituency?
MADDENI think that's going to be the interesting thing to watch. I mean, we know from that poll that, for white voters, ethics was the number one concern and that there was concern over the scandal hanging over the Gray administration. It wasn't the same for -- for black voters, for jobs, and I believe it was the economy was the number one priority. So, I mean, it'll be interesting to see how much this affects Gray's approval right now. But obviously when you have this daily drumbeat of scandal and -- obviously this is not going away, this story. It's not going to help Gray.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. What concerns do you have about the influence of money in the District's local politics? What do you think is necessary to restore the integrity of the system if in fact you believe it's been significantly damaged? 800-433-8850 or shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the aftermath of yesterday's dramatic testimony in the U.S. District Court in which businessman Jeffrey Thompson admitted to illegal contributions to federal and local campaigns, particularly the 2010 mayoral campaign of Mayor Vincent Gray. We're talking with Paul Butler.
NNAMDIHe is a professor of law at the Georgetown Law Center and a former federal prosecutor. He's author of the book, "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice." He joins me in our Washington studio with Patrick Madden who's a reporter for WAMU 88.5. Nikita Stewart joins us from studios at The New York Times.
NNAMDIShe's a reporter for The New York Times and a former reporter for The Post where she broke the story about the potential shadow campaign in D.C.'s 2010 mayoral primary. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Patrick, you were saying that yesterday could not really be good news for Vincent Gray at all. But do you think that it's likely to turn this mayoral primary coming up on April 1 and maybe the entire election, if Gray does win the primary, into a referendum on whether voters believe Gray's word against those of Thompson, prosecutors, and others?
MADDENI mean, that's interesting. I think already this election has been a referendum on Gray and the scandal because clearly there is a sizable majority of people who, according to the latest polls, you know, do not support Gray. And they cite the scandal as the main reason. But on the other hand, it's a crowded field, and Gray is still holding on with this many candidates in the race, still has enough support that it -- you know, if the vote was held when they polls took out, he would be the winner.
NNAMDILet's take a listen to how Mayor Gray responded to the developments yesterday. Here's a clip from an interview he did with our resident analyst Tom Sherwood, a reporter with NBC 4.
MAYOR VINCENT GRAYWith respect to him raising money for my campaign, that, I thought, was being done in a perfectly legitimate fashion. I've said that from day one, and I maintain that it was a -- and to my knowledge, anyway, it was a perfectly legitimate experience. And a point of fact, initially, he said no, that he wouldn't raise money for the campaign. He was fearful of what would happen to him, you know, because of the Fenty Administration. So I maintain these are lies. These are absolute lies.
NNAMDIMayor Gray's apparently moving forward with his State of the District Address tonight. But, Paul Butler, you were going to say?
BUTLEROh, man, can you imagine how the mayor's attorney, Bob Bennett, is cringing? Because the first thing you say to a client in a case like this is shut up. Don't talk to anybody. But as a politician, that's not really an option. So there's always a tension in these cases between what you do with someone who's being investigated and what you do as a public servant.
NNAMDIWhich means, Patrick Madden, that tonight we probably won't hear anything about this in the mayor's State of the District Address.
MADDENRight. But we probably will hear it with the other candidates who are delivering rebuttals to the mayor's State of the District Address. So obviously this will be the issue in the campaign with three weeks to go. It's obviously the candidates have already started releasing statements, calling, you know, calling up for different things that Gray should do or not do, but this will be the issue, as you said. And it will be almost a referendum on Gray with just three weeks to go until voting.
NNAMDIBut there was a lot spelled out in court yesterday about who else might have been receiving off-the-books, underground help from Thompson in 2006, 2008, 2010. What do we know about who specifically Thompson was trying to help in those elections? Please feel free to jump in, Nikita Stewart.
STEWARTSure. You know, the way Jeffrey Thompson picked candidates, it was very interesting. Some of the folks, he just liked, or he had an affinity. He loved the Clintons. You know, I think that listeners should understand that he has a long history with the Democratic Party going back to Alexis Herman. He dated her many years ago. She was close with the Clintons.
STEWARTAnd he stayed in their good graces, if you will, or at least he wanted to stay in their good graces. And he raised money for them, not just for their political campaigns but also for the Clinton Foundation. On another note, he also liked candidates who could help him with his city contracts. And I think we saw a lot of that spelled out yesterday in the documents.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Sally, Patrick Madden, who asked, "What are the implications of the Thompson contributions for Vincent Orange, Muriel Bowser, and other mayoral candidates?" I guess it depends on whether they were off the books or whether they were publicly disclosed.
MADDENRight. So you had...
MADDENRight. You had some candidates who were -- or a lot of candidates who received money or donations from folks that were in Thompson's straw donor network but probably had no idea that these were, you know, conduits delivering money or delivering contributions on behalf of Thompson's direction.
MADDENOn the other hand, it does outline the shadow campaigns for several mayoral and council races and talks about how these were done sort of in concert with the official campaign, or there was knowledge that this was going on. So there were differing levels of, I guess, knowledge of how much Thompson was helping.
NNAMDIPaul Butler, you mentioned earlier that Brendan Sullivan is representing Jeffrey Thompson. Brendan Sullivan also defended former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, and that did not end up well for the Justice Department. But, from the get-go, Thompson and his legal team refuse publicly to discuss any sort of plea agreement, challenged the prosecution's attempt all the way to the Supreme Court to get their hands on various documents. Were you surprised that Brendan Sullivan ultimately agreed to cooperate with this investigation?
BUTLERI was a little. You know, Brendan Sullivan is famous for almost never having a client go to prison. Now, what that suggests here is his client, Mr. Thompson, has really got to give up the goods for that to happen in this case because, again, he's one of the toughest lawyers in the city. One of his strategies is to put prosecution on trial, which is exactly what he did in the Stevens' case, the case against the United States senator.
NNAMDIMm hmm. Which the U.S. Justice Department initially won.
BUTLERThey got a conviction in criminal court, and then they ended up not bringing the case or withdrawing the conviction because Sullivan made such a -- did such a good job of making the case about the prosecutor conduct as opposed to his client's conduct….
NNAMDIOne of the reasons that Ron Machen was apparently being so careful this time around. Here's Tom in Washington, D.C. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMHi. First of all, Nikita Stewart, welcome back. We've missed you. I watched the prosecutor saying (unintelligible) and it didn't feel like he (unintelligible)...
NNAMDICan't hear you very well. You're breaking up on us, Tom. I'll get back with you. See if you can get on firmer ground. Hopefully, you're not moving. And in the meantime, I will go to Emanuel in Crofton, Md. Emanuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMANUELYes. Thank you for taking my call, Kojo. First, I'd like to say I'm a great admirer of Mr. Paul Butler. Mr. Butler, please keep up the great work.
BUTLERWell, thanks so much.
EMANUELYes, sir. Just, you know, on the outside looking in, Kojo, I think it's a lot of questions surrounding the present administration. And I don't know which way that, you know, falls, who's right, who's wrong. But there has been a lot of questions, but, you know, I didn't have much more to say. Really just wanted to call in and speak with Mr. Butler. (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, let me ask you a question. You say there are a lot of questions surrounding the current administration. Have what you've heard either yesterday, as in the testimony, or today during this discussion answered any of those questions for you?
EMANUELWith some of the articles that I've read, you know, months ago, it kind of confirmed some things that I had questions about. But, again, the trial has yet to take place, so I really don't know. But the Sulaimon Brown thing, you know, I was the gentleman that always called to find -- to ask the question, Kojo, why could not they go to Union Station with all of those cameras and see if that conversation took place? You know, that was always a question of mine in why that couldn't be done. I still don't understand.
STEWARTApparently, they just didn't have -- they weren't in view of the cameras. I don't know. But we know now that, you know, Sulaimon Brown was telling the truth. They now have their folks in jail over it. So, you know, and that launched this whole investigation, and here we are, three years later, and Jeffrey Thompson is a big fish. And now we'll see if, in fact, the prosecutors will go so far as to prosecuting the mayor, which I'm a little devastated as a former citizen of D.C., believe it or not, so, yeah.
NNAMDIHere -- try again, Tom, in Washington, D.C. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMVery good. Thanks, Kojo. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIWe can hear you much, much better now.
TOMGreat. You know, I watched the prosecutor yesterday. It was rough. But I didn't feel like he had it nailed down like he could win the case against the mayor in court. Two things stuck with me. One was the document, that, you know, what Prof. Butler calls the bombshell document...
TOM...a budget for this campaign that Thompson was going to run for the mayor.
TOMThat's tough. And the other was the Uncle Earl, the fact that they had a little secret code. And it looks like a conspiracy. It made me think of the original Uncle Earl. Uncle Earl, the governor of Louisiana, and gave good advice.
NNAMDIEarl Long. Earl Long, right?
TOMYep, Earl Long.
TOMHe gave good advice for politicians to stay out of trouble. He said never write what you can say. Never say what you can whisper. Never whisper what you can wink. Never wink what you can nudge. And never nudge when you can just smile 'cause the other guys understands what you're saying.
TOMAnd I bet the mayor wishes he'd never made that document, if it exists.
NNAMDIWell -- if, in fact, that document exists. You make a very good point. Thanks for -- thank you very much for your call. But it brings back to me -- I still don't understand the Uncle Earl reference. To whom was the mayor supposed to refer to Uncle -- I understand he was reported...
NNAMDI....supposed to refer to Jeff Thompson in that way, but in conversations with whom?
NNAMDIGo ahead, Nikita.
STEWARTWell, you know, one of the things that we have to remember is that we're not seeing everything that the prosecutors have. And if we look at the other cases, we know that there are text messages and emails and voicemails and memos. And I don't know what they have in this case. I don't know what has been shredded. I don't know what has been destroyed. But I don't believe -- and, Mr. Butler, you're the expert here, you're the attorney -- that the U.S. attorney would go on just Jeffrey Thompson's word. And I'll say Jeffrey Earl Thompson.
NNAMDIThat is his middle name, and that's why he was, I guess, calling -- being called Uncle Earl by a man older than he is. But go ahead, please, Paul Butler.
BUTLERYeah, Nikita, I think you're right. I mean, we don't know what the case is, if there's one against the mayor because that's not what their press conference yesterday was about. That's not what the court proceeding -- the court proceeding was about Mr. Thompson. So we have to wait and see what the goods are against the mayor.
NNAMDIWhat do you know, Patrick Madden?
MADDENWell, I just going to say, in Nikita's great profile of Thompson, he also sort of enjoyed having nicknames like the governor or the admiral, so I also think that he was fond of creating nicknames.
NNAMDIUncle Earl being the one we're discussing in this case. We move on to Steve in Aspen Hill, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi. I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions. Is the -- in view of this scandal and the target of the scandal, namely Mayor Fenty, who was disadvantaged by this whole thing, is there any way of getting him back in the picture and possibly having him run for mayor? Since he...
NNAMDIWell, from what I have been reading about the former mayor's life out on the West coast, he doesn't seem to have much of an interest in returning at this point. But maybe Patrick Madden and Nikita Stewart know something else.
MADDENI would agree with Kojo. I think it sounds like he's got a pretty good deal going on out on the West coast.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Nikita?
STEWARTI think he is happy. And, you know, let's remember that I think their race was really Fenty's to lose. The race could have gone very differently if he had apologized earlier and made some alliances earlier. And I'm not so sure his heart was in it to really run. Of course, his supporters would hate me for that and say that now Gray stole the election from him. So...
STEVEBy the way, is -- I was wondering, this -- the only scandals affecting the Washington, D.C. politicians. Has Eleanor Holmes Norton -- what -- I think that's her name, the congresswoman...
STEVEHas she remained above the fray?
NNAMDIShe was, I guess, involved in a way because she received contributions from Jeffrey Thompson. There were those who wanted her to return those contributions, right, Patrick?
MADDENRight. I believe the contributions from Thompson and his network were -- basically, some of the folks that have already pleaded guilty that were part of the Thompson straw network, those donations to Norton, I think, were returned and given to DC Vote.
NNAMDIAnd that's all the time we have. Patrick Madden is a reporter for WAMU 88.5. Paul Butler is a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Georgetown University. He's author of the book "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice." And Nikita Stewart is a reporter for The New York Times. She's a former reporter for The Washington Post. She broke the story about the potential shadow campaign in D.C.'s 2010 mayoral election. Nikita, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIPaul, thank you for joining us.
BUTLERGreat to be here, Kojo.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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