Summer is winding down, and city scandal is heating up.
Longtime political operative Vernon Hawkins was the latest to do the U.S. District Court dance Tuesday.
Hawkins, 74, is usually mild-mannered and mostly easygoing. But he was awkward in the courtroom Tuesday morning, pleading guilty to a felony charge of lying to the FBI.
Hawkins had to lean over to speak into the courtroom microphone. “You’re quite tall,” remarked Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. “You need to speak up in a loud, clear voice.”
Over the next hour and 40 minutes, the judge laid out the plea deal — how Hawkins admitted to being part of the shadow campaign that spent $653,000 off the books to help elect Vincent Gray mayor in 2010. Hawkins will be sentenced later, but only after he continues to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
And given Hawkins’ closeness to Gray — who declines to comment on what he knew and what he did in his own campaign — it was an important step.
“Vernon Hawkins was at ground zero of a scheme to design, staff, and execute an off-the-books shadow campaign,” U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said in a statement to the media. Machen noted that Hawkins and others broke the law and then tried to cover it up. “This guilty plea takes us one step closer to understanding the extent of the deception that tainted the 2010 campaign.”
At this point we have four close associates of the mayor who have pleaded guilty and are cooperating fully with Machen’s probe into Gray’s campaign.
Last summer Jeanne Clarke Harris pleaded guilty. She was a principal in the scheme. Campaign associates — and Gray friends — Howard Brooks and Thomas Gore previously pleaded guilty to charges involving improper payments to minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown for his frequent criticisms of Adrian Fenty during the campaign. All are cooperating with authorities.
Mayor Gray this week was maintaining his “no comment” silence as his longtime associates went down one by one. Many in the public find it hard to believe that Gray — himself a stickler for details — did not at least know of the illegal campaigning or, worse, approve of it.
■ Election approaching. As the prosecutor sorts out wrongdoing in the last election, the next one quickly is approaching. The primary for mayor is now scheduled for April 1, 2014. That seems a long way away, but it isn’t really.
Good-government watchdog Dorothy Brizill noted online this week that candidates can start picking up petitions to get on the April ballot this Nov. 8. Completed petitions must be filed with the Board of Elections by Jan. 2.
That’s a fast timetable. And it requires campaigning right through the holidays. It’s possible that the D.C. Council, when it returns from recess in September, may move the primary from April 1 (April Fool’s Day) to as late as June. If it does, there will be a little more breathing room on those petitions.
And Mayor Gray, who has yet to declare for a second term, will get a little longer to see what damage the U.S. Attorney’s Office will do to his political future. Some folks are suggesting that Gray has already decided he’s not running. But we need to more clearly see some of the pending legal developments before that can be said.
■ Watch Walmart. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said this week that he’s about ready to send to the mayor the bill that would force big-box stores to pay at least $12.50 an hour (including benefits).
The chairman has been sitting on the bill since it passed 8-5 in July, just before the council went on its summer recess. Though Gray hasn’t announced his intentions formally, NBC4 has reported that Gray will veto the bill, declaring it anti-business and a threat to the city’s growing retail corridors. (Walmart has threatened to pull the plug on all six of city stores it has planned.) Mendelson is hoping to line up nine votes to override any veto, but he’s not there yet.
Last week, former Mayor Tony Williams and other business leaders weighed in. Williams, who also heads a task force on the city’s revenue sources, is chief executive officer of the influential Federal City Council. Former Rep. Tom Davis, D-Va., is serving as president of the council.
In a sternly worded letter sent last Friday, they and other business leaders called the Walmart bill “arbitrary and discriminatory legislation.” More importantly, they said the bill threatens economic development in key areas of the city.
“In the city’s most under-resourced wards,” the leaders wrote, “jobs are scarce and access to affordable retail and fresh groceries is nearly nonexistent.” They warned that “retailers will continue to build their new stores just over the city lines in Maryland and Virginia.”
Davis, in an interview with NBC4, noted that dollars from District citizens “will follow them to the suburbs.”
Labor unions and community activists who support the higher wage bill for big-box stores aren’t impressed with the business leaders’ lament.
“Surprise, surprise,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, a leader of a group urging the mayor to sign the bill when he gets it. “Typical of the Federal City Council,” Hagler told NBC4. “They are overseers of the plantation.”
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.