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Sherwood’s Notebook: Federal Campaign Finance Probe Like a Leaky Faucet

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Sherwood: Campaign Finance Probe Like a Leaky Faucet

Tim Graham

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Like an unrepaired leaky faucet, the federal probe into illegal campaigning and D.C. government corruption is turning into a stream of convictions and court actions — a stream that should make the guilty still out there nervous and send them searching for life preservers.

Philadelphia businessman Stanley L. Straughter stood in the court dock Monday, his hands clasped nervously behind his back, and pleaded guilty to making $132,000 in bogus campaign contributions in his and family members’ names over six years.

Those contributions, according to lawyers familiar with the case, were improperly reimbursed by District businessman Jeffrey Thompson, publicly identified only as “Executive A” from “Company A.”

Straughter pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and will be back in court in September. He could face jail time and hefty fines.

As he left the court Monday, Straughter kept a stoic appearance as he walked to his car while his attorney Steven McCool (what a great last name!) stopped to speak briefly with reporters.

“Mr. Straughter is a 71-year-old man,” McCool said. “He’s spent his life helping the underserved, here and abroad. He exercised poor judgment, and that’s what brought him here today. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a good and decent man and he’s going to continue to cooperate with the government and he’s going to uphold his end of the bargain.”

Drip, drip, drip.

Straughter is the second person in less than a week to plead guilty in the campaign scheme. More friends and associates of Thompson’s are expected in court in the coming days.

Last week, Lee A. Calhoun pleaded guilty to making $160,000 in straw donations — all of which Calhoun’s lawyer said was reimbursed by Thompson. After that plea, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said the accounting firm had allowed “an assembly line” of contributions orchestrated by “Executive A.”

Even as we write this on Monday, some defense lawyers were saying other friends and associates of “Executive A” could be announced this week.

Four people have now pleaded guilty in the fake-contribution scandal.

Former D.C. Council member Michael Brown pleaded guilty to accepting cash payments from undercover FBI agents, and also for accepting fake contributions from the alleged Thompson scheme. And last summer, D.C. public relations executive Jeanne Clark Harris pleaded guilty to orchestrating and making thousands of dollars in fake contributions on behalf of Thompson’s scheme.

Drip, drip, drip.

The pace of the investigation moved one attorney familiar with the cases to ask how many friends and associates of Thompson have to wind up in court before Thompson will reconsider his (and his lawyer’s) refusal to cooperate in the investigation?

The attorney who made that point — who asked not to be identified so he may speak freely about the cases — said that with every conviction, it will be harder and harder for Thompson himself to strike a deal with prosecutors. He’ll watch as his friends and associates, bit players in the campaign finance scheme, see their careers and reputations ruined.

That’s typical of the kind of pressure prosecutors will put on reluctant witnesses or someone who may be a focus of an investigation. Thompson has not been charged with any crime, and his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, declines to speak with reporters about ongoing cases.

Drip, drip, drip.

Some attorneys believe that before it’s over, Thompson and his scheme may total millions of dollars and affect campaigns across the country.

Last week, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton announced that she had reviewed her campaign files and determined that about $20,000 came from Thompson-related donors. She said that to clear her records she decided to donate the same amount to the nonprofit group DC Vote.

Drip, drip, drip.

■ And what of Mayor Gray? The inquiry into the Thompson scheme flows from the initial investigation into how Thompson provided $650,000 for a “shadow campaign” to elect Vincent Gray mayor.

News4 reported last year that Gray showed up at his campaign headquarters with about $100,000 in checks that were supposedly collected by Thompson. It’s unclear now which of those checks, if any, were real donations or straw donations, lawyers say.

Gray has consistently declined to comment on this investigation, saying he’s following the advice of his attorney. But he has generally denied wrongdoing.

Drip, drip, drip.

■ Good news. On the positive side of the campaign ledger, former council candidate Elissa Silverman has returned to her post at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, one of the city’s most influential advocacy groups.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the organization, said of Silverman: “Elissa’s campaign is yet another notch on her belt of D.C. experiences, and the things she learned by directly connecting with voters makes her an even stronger employee.”

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