If D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Council Member Yvette Alexander have anything to do with it, voters will look past accusations that he was aware of and participated in a shadow campaign to get him elected in 2010.
If they have their way, people who head to the polls next month to vote for one of eight Democrats vying for their party's nomination in the mayoral race will focus on the city's improving schools, bustling economy, active development, reduced unemployment rate and other signs of fiscal health and ignore the allegations charging him with being corrupt.
At the State of the District speech March 11 at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7, Gray seemed more irritated than concerned as he addressed the hundreds – many of them supporters and government workers – who were on hand for the speech. He soundly criticized D.C. developer Jeffrey E. Thompson, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with campaign finance fraud.
In a short interview with the AFRO after the speech, Gray said he believes his chances of being elected are good, despite the rapidly mounting criticism against him. He pointed to the people who had attended the speech as if that proved he has widespread public support. "I think that people recognize what happened, what it is," he said. "I think that there are lots of people out here who support us. Period," Gray said.
Alexander, who succeeded him as council member in Ward 7 when he was elected mayor in 2010, said she believes he has not lost the public's trust. "He just told all of these hundreds of people that he did not commit any crime. I know he's a man of integrity, so I'm with him all the way," said Alexander (D-Ward 7).
Political analysts said those are odd and perhaps even careless observations from seasoned politicians who should know that scandal of any sort can be the end of even the most illustrious political career. Even as Gray seems to think the scandal won't stick, other candidates in the mayor's race subtly took advantage of having the top contender hobbled, if not sidelined all together.
Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said in statements earlier this week that the allegations against Gray reflected poorly on the city. Bowser called the accusations against the mayor "a flagrant betrayal of the public's trust."
Evans indicated that Gray should step down, which many accused politicians are loathe to do in this day of denying responsibility. "I believe he should do what's in the best interest of the city," Evans said.
Despite Gray's claim that he's still in good with the citizenry, there are many who believe him to be corrupt. "I think it's real and I think it's true, because it seems like all of these VIPs, politicians, Congress people, they all crooks. They're always in the media," said Jocelyn Golphin, a front desk receptionist at the National Press Club in Northwest Washington. She said she will not vote for Gray in the next election.
The Democratic primary, which will likely determine the District of Columbia's next mayor, has been turned upside down by the allegations. "It is a bombshell," said legal and political analyst A. Scott Bolden about the claims made by Thompson, who made millions on D.C. government contracts. "Of all the people who've pled guilty in this investigation, all of them have denied Mayor Gray's involvement. And here is the chief architect of this illegal effort saying he allegedly had direct contact with the mayor."
Thompson told prosecutors Gray knew about his scheme to pump more than $660,000 into a shadow campaign on his behalf. In fact, prosecutors said, Gray had a code name for Thompson to hide his identity, "Uncle Earl." In one of at least two face-to-face meetings, Gray allegedly handed over a one-page budget for $425,000 in get-out-the-vote expenses that Thompson then funded, according to his plea agreement.
In exchange, Thompson said, around August 2011 he requested Gray's help in expediting a settlement agreement between the District government and one of his companies, and shortly thereafter, the matter was resolved. Thompson's supposed arrangement with Gray was part of an ongoing scheme in which he and his companies secretly channeled more than $3.3 million in illegal contributions to at least 28 local and federal political candidates and their campaigns over a decade, prosecutors said.
Thompson is the president, CEO and owner of D.C. Healthcare Systems (DCHS), which makes about $300 million annually from D.C. government contracts. He pleaded guilty to the federal offenses of conspiring to violate federal campaign finance laws and submitting false filings to the IRS. He also pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate D.C. campaign finance laws.
"Jeff Thompson's guilty plea pulls back the curtain to expose widespread corruption," U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. told reporters on March 10. "His plea gives the citizens of D.C. an inside look at the underground, off-the-book schemes that have corrupted election after election, year after year in the District."
Machen urged Thompson's co-conspirators "to come forward now and own up to your conduct."
The words may have been a direct challenge to Gray who has denied any culpability.
Prosecutors would likely need independent corroboration of Thompson's allegations to make an indictment against the mayor stick. But the latest accusations darken the cloud that has hovered over Gray during the three-year probe. Four high-level aides associated with his 2010 campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies for orchestrating the illicit funding scheme bankrolled by Thompson, and to other corruption charges.
"It is going to be very damaging for his campaign," said David Bositis, a longtime expert on Black politics. "For voters still on the fence in the Democratic primary race the question now is what if we nominate him and he gets indicted? And for a lot of people it is reinforcing a belief they already had, that he did know about [the shadow campaign]."
Bolden said he believes law enforcement officials timed things that way.
Thompson and his lawyers stonewalled prosecutors for years and only came forth when he was offered a deal that could see him spending a maximum of six months in prison. He faced as much as five years. "That offer and that plea deal was timed by the U.S. attorney to infect the election outcome [since] the mayor, as an incumbent who has been under three years of investigation, has been leading in the race," Bolden said. "After three years the U.S. attorney has not brought one indictment against the mayor. That is an untenable political and legal circumstance. So, while the government may not be ready to legally indict the mayor now – if they ever will be – they can indict him in the political and public arena. And the timing of this deal clearly supports that theory."
Bositis said the fact that U.S. Attorney Machen, who is Black, is operating under the aegis of a Department of Justice run by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is not someone people suspect of persecuting Black officials, adds legitimacy to the allegations against Gray. "This is Obama's man; he works for Eric Holder.
This isn't some White prosecutor going after a Black politician, so if they're thinking of indicting him then that's [likely] where the evidence is pointing. And that changes things in Black people's minds," he said.
Maria Adebola and LaTrina Antoine contributed to this report.