Investigation Sheds Light On 'Shadow Campaign'

Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is under a criminal investigation into possible corruption during his 2010 bid for office. Three city council members recently called for his resignation. Guest host Maria Hinojosa gets the latest developments from Washington Post Reporter Nikita Stewart, who is covering the story.

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, you tell us more about your reaction to some of our recent stories. That's in BackTalk in just a few minutes.

But, first, a federal probe is looking into the 2010 campaign of Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. The investigation is raising questions about how Gray financed his successful campaign to unseat his rival, Democratic incumbent Adrian Fenty.

In recent weeks, two of Gray's campaign consultants pleaded guilty to charges of either paying money to discredit Fenty or lying about the source of campaign contributions. The U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI have expanded the investigation beyond Mayor Gray to include politicians and campaign contributions going back as far 2001.

Nikita Stewart is one of the reporters covering the story for the Washington Post and joins us from the newspaper's offices in downtown Washington, D.C.

Welcome to the program, Nikita.

NIKITA STEWART: Thank you for having me.

HINOJOSA: I'd like to play a short clip of Mayor Vincent Gray. Here he is responding to the investigation earlier this week. Here we go.

VINCENT GRAY: As I've indicated along the way, this investigation is continuing. Obviously, it is. Obviously, there is additional information that is unfolding. I think many of you will remember that, more than a year ago, I was the one that called for an investigation of my own campaign.

HINOJOSA: OK. Nikita, what is at the heart of this campaign? Because it sounds a bit confusing, a bit convoluted, and now it's reaching back more than a decade? What's going on here?

STEWART: Yes. It is convoluted. It started with the Washington Post breaking a story last year about a candidate who was running against Vincent Gray and Adrian Fenty. His name was Sulaimon Brown and it turned out that he had been paid by the Gray campaign to badger Fenty on the campaign trail.

You know, that unfolded to seeing how he was paid, and he was paid through money orders. Then that led to an investigation of the cash that was coming into the campaign. And now it has expanded to looking at a businessman, Jeffrey E. Thompson, here in the District who, until a few days ago, owned a major accounting firm in the city. He still owns a health care firm in the city and, since 2001, he allegedly, with another person, an associate of his who was also an associate of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, have been funding campaigns, both local and federal, through straw donors.

HINOJOSA: But here's the thing. If you put this into context - in a historical context here, how does this fit in? I mean, it doesn't sound good, the things that you're talking about, Nikita, here. But is this a question of deep corruption in the context of, you know, Washington, D.C. mayor offices or is it, at this point, you know, a question of credibility and the mayor can not get it back?

STEWART: For the mayor, at this point, he has not been charged. He has not been implicated at this point. It is a question of credibility. Folks in town are asking, what did you know? When did you know it? Why didn't you tell anyone?

The Washington Post broke a story just yesterday and a person close to the mayor has confirmed that, yes, in fact, he knew in January that there were these unreported funds coming into his campaign or, actually, it was a separate campaign that has been dubbed the shadow campaign. We're talking about $650,000 that helped him to get elected.

At the time, during the 2010 election, everyone thought he was the underdog when it came to canvassers on the street and money compared to his chief opponent, Adrian Fenty. It turns out that that wasn't true.

HINOJOSA: But what's interesting, Nikita, is that this mayor has actually been under some kind of investigation from the earliest days of his administration, but only recently now have city leaders begun to step forward and ask the mayor to resign. So who are they and what reasons are they giving for making this demand now?

STEWART: Well, there are three council members that have come out asking for his resignation. One was a supporter of his predecessor. So that was expected. Another is someone who has always been a thorn in his side. But another one, Mary Cheh, represents the northwest corner of the city here and she was his friend and she was an ally and she said that, you know, this is just hanging over the city, it's hanging over him. How could he possibly function? And it's time for him to step down.

HINOJOSA: And, Nikita, do you think the mayor will just stay silent? Yes or no? Or...

STEWART: The mayor has been advised by his attorney to not comment on the investigation. But today, he has come out swinging, saying that, you know, he has no plans to resign and that, you know, he's innocent until proved guilty. He hasn't even been charged and...

HINOJOSA: Thank you, Nikita. Thank you for that, then. Nikita Stewart is covering the investigation into Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray for the Washington Post. She joined us from their offices.

Thanks again, Nikita.

STEWART: Thank you.

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