Sherwood's Notebook: Three Strikes, You're Out?

It may be three strikes time for federal prosecutors here.

As NBC4 first reported last week, veteran D.C. prosecutor and Justice Department official Channing Phillips is in line to be the next U.S. Attorney for the District.

He was nominated by President Barack Obama after D.C. Del Eleanor Holmes Norton favored Phillips over acting U.S. Attorney Vincent Cohen Jr. The reason, most insiders believe, is that Norton was impatient with the prosecutors’ office, wanting it to wind up — one way or another — the long corruption investigation into former Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign.

Phillips is almost universally liked and respected. He wins high praise from former Attorney General Eric Holder and many others. As soon as the Phillips announcement was made, Cohen immediately announced he’ll clear out by Oct. 18.

When he settles in, Phillips will be the third prosecutor to take over the Gray investigation. First there was U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen. The Washington Post broke the 2011 story of campaign shenanigans in Gray’s 2010 winning bid. News of the “shadow campaign” involving illegal monies soon followed.

While Gray has denied any wrongdoing, the subsequent legal case basically killed his re-election chances in 2014. Eight people have been charged and seven have pleaded guilty in the case, but Gray hasn’t faced any charges.

Cohen had been Machen’s deputy through the entire investigation. Machen resigned in the spring to return to private practice. Cohen took over April 1 of this year. Many, including your Notebook, had thought that Cohen either would have brought charges against Gray or brought the case to a close. He didn’t. Now it will be up to the new U.S. attorney to pull the trigger or pull the plug.

■ Defending Gray. The Notebook asked Gray’s 2014 campaign manager for a few thoughts. Most activists in city politics know Chuck Thies as a campaign manager with an all-in style and sharp tongue for all things political.

Federal prosecutors no doubt have a wholly different view, but Thies thinks prosecutors wrongly destroyed Gray’s career and the media let them get away with it.

But let him tell it.

“Ron Machen and Vinnie Cohen led investigations that rid District politics of Kwame Brown, Harry Thomas Jr., Michael Brown and numerous other low-level sleaze balls,” Thies begins. “They also nabbed Jeff Thompson, a kingpin of illegal campaign funds who admittedly corrupted District politics for many years. Indeed, his crimes began before Vince Gray had ever run for office.

“Machen and Cohen’s success against corrupt politicians doesn’t immunize them from making mistakes, nor does it grant them the right to hound an innocent man and drive him from office.Nonetheless, that is exactly what they did to Vince Gray.”

Thies writes that “the U.S. Attorney launched the sharpest arrow in his quiver one week before voting began in the 2014 Democratic Primary. Though the criminal he paraded out was Jeff Thompson, the target was Vince Gray.”

And Thies notes that prosecutors focused on Gray, not Thompson, making “it clear that Gray was public enemy No. 1.”

Now, Thies says, another 18 months have passed since Gray lost.

“No charges have been filed against him,” he said. “Just as significantly, the U.S. Attorney has orchestrated no further court appearances or press conferences that smear Gray. Prior to the election, such events were regular happenings, as were leaks to the media and rumors that Gray would be indicted. All of the above reinforces the notion that the U.S. Attorney timed its actions against Thompson specifically to undermine Gray’s reelection.”

Thies says every public poll, as well as Gray’s internal polls, had Gray leading and “no one inside our camp doubted that we were headed to victory.”

But Muriel Bowser won.

“So where are we today?” said Thies. “No one can change history. We can’t undo the election results. But what about Vince Gray? Who does he call to get his reputation back? And how can District voters be assured that federal prosecutors will never again meddle in a local election?

“Voting rights activists clamor about congressional interference in local governance, but at least congress operates in the light of day. Federal prosecutors make decisions behind closed doors.”
Thies contends that for prosecutors, “blowing a big case is not a good career move.” Machen and Cohen quit government with the case unresolved. “Machen is in private practice making millions. Cohen is likely to follow suit. They left Vince Gray flapping in the wind,” he said.

Gray’s former campaign manager — again, for the 2014 campaign, not the disputed 2010 effort — adds that “it is also increasingly possible to believe that Gray is innocent; a position from which I have not wavered for more than four years. I know Vince Gray. I knew him before he was a politician. He is an inherently decent, honest, hardworking person.”

Thies says in his conclusion: “It is nearly impossible to believe that the U.S. Attorney’s actions weren’t designed to thwart Gray. Apply some logic to the U.S. Attorney’s witch hunt versus Gray and … the evidence becomes clear. Two very aggressive prosecutors targeted the wrong guy and instead of admitting they were wrong, they decided Gray was dispensable. Then they rode off into the sunset.”

■ Christie and D.C. rights? Washingtonian reports that Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie wasn’t so cool on statehood and congressional voting rights for our city during a New Hampshire forum. “I don’t think adding another person to Congress is gonna help,” the magazine says he responded to a question from a Wall Street Journal reporter, who had said the question came from a District citizen.

But the magazine also says MSNBC reported that Christie added a fleeting thought to the whole thing, saying, “We may [have] the only capital created just to be a seat of government.”

We’ll consider it progress if national politicians express some recognition of our situation, whether they care about it or not.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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