The latest scandal threatening to take down a major Washington political figure isn't emanating from Capitol Hill, or from the Obama administration. It's coming from the John A. Wilson Building — or, more accurately, from Mayor Vincent Gray's increasingly endangered inner circle. Now, after another close Gray associate pleaded guilty to campaign finance law violations, strategists in the nation's capital are coming to the conclusion that the mayor himself won't survive the scandal.
On Tuesday, Jeanne Clarke Harris, a long-time Washington political activist, became the third person tied to Gray's campaign to plead guilty. She described what U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen called a "shadow campaign" involving straw donors and $653,000 in secret money prosecutors say was coordinated with members of Gray's campaign team.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Gray again denied knowing about illegal activity, though many of his answers were less than forthcoming. "This was not the campaign we intended to run," Gray said. He refused to say whether he had been interviewed by the FBI, and he refused to rule out resigning. Asked if he would finish out his four-year term, Gray said: "I have no plans to do otherwise."
If Gray does resign, the city's elections board would have to hold a special election after 114 days, according to statute, unless there is a regularly scheduled general election within 60 days of that window. That effectively means if Gray were to resign by September, Washington would likely choose a new mayor on Nov. 6.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for Machen's office, said that no one else faces charges in connection with the case at the moment.
But city insiders believe more charges are coming, and that a shadow campaign of that size couldn't have been operated without the knowledge of several other senior-level Gray campaign aides — and perhaps even the candidate himself.
"What we saw yesterday is evidence of massive vote fraud and an effort to steal an election," said Tom Lindenfeld, a longtime Washington political strategist. "The fact that Gray has clammed up and hasn't spoken about any of this for a month is evidence enough. Someone who is not guilty would call those coming forward bad apples, would ask for a full investigation to root out any and all corruption, and would call for cleaning up and restoring trust."
The scandal has also ensnared Thomas Gore, an assistant treasurer who pleaded guilty to paying off a former mayoral candidate and destroying documents, and Howard Brooks, who admitted lying to investigators about giving the same former mayoral candidate money. The shadow campaign Harris described in court was allegedly funded by Jeffrey Thompson, a prominent Washington businessman whose home and offices were searched earlier this year.
Thompson has not been charged with wrongdoing to date. But Harris testified that Thompson helped hide political expenditures, and that he suggested she travel to Brazil — for up to five years — until the statute of limitations had run out on her crimes. An unnamed coconspirator is referenced throughout the charging document filed by Machen's office.
"We are likely to have a special election this November on the general-election day, for council chair and mayor," said Lindenfeld, who guided Adrian Fenty's successful 2006 campaign but left during his reelection bid in 2010.
Perhaps most tellingly, candidates who might replace Gray are already circling. City Councilman Tommy Wells said this week that he would run in 2014, when Gray's term would ordinarily expire. Fellow council members Muriel Bowser, Michael Brown, and Jack Evans are also considering running.
If a special election is necessary, observers say Bowser would be the favorite. Washington may no longer be majority African-American, but its electorate is, leaving Wells and Evans — who are white — with a limited base to split. Bowser has a strong base in Ward 4, the largest ward in the city, and she occupies a unique position, well-respected both by government-reform advocates like The Washington Post's editorial board, and by former Mayors Anthony Williams and Fenty.
The scandal enveloping Gray's campaign is the latest in a decades-long string of political corruption in the nation's capital. This year alone, two council members have pleaded guilty to financial felonies and resigned, and several others have been investigated for alleged improprieties as well. If anger continues to mount, Gray's political career has likely come to an end — whether or not he survives what's becoming an increasingly heated summer.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the building that houses the D.C. government. It is the John A. Wilson Building.