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D.C. PR Exec Charged With Straw Contributions

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(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Washington public-relations executive has been charged with making straw contributions to candidates for federal and local offices, including District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray.

Eugenia Clarke Harris was charged Monday in a criminal information — a charging document that can only be filed with a defendant’s consent and typically indicates a defendant intends to plead guilty. A plea hearing was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Harris, 75, faces a federal conspiracy charge for allegedly making contributions in the name of another person and destroying records, and faces a similar conspiracy charge under district law. She’s also charged with filing a fraudulent tax return.

Harris, known as Jeanne, is a close associate of Jeffrey Thompson, a businessman and prominent government contractor. Although Thompson is not named in the charging documents, prosecutors allege that Harris was reimbursed by an unnamed co-conspirator for contributions made in the names of herself and her friends, relatives and employees.

Federal investigators searched Harris’ home and offices in March, the same day they searched Thompson’s home and offices. Several D.C. councilmembers have received subpoenas asking for details of any contributions linked to Thompson.

Harris was reimbursed for $44,000 in contributions to Gray, according to the documents, in which the mayor is identified as “Candidate A.” Harris did communications work for Gray’s 2010 campaign, and her companies and several of her relatives contributed to the campaign. WAMU-FM first reported the relatives’ contributions.

Frederick Cooke, one of Harris’ attorneys, declined to comment Monday. Thompson’s attorney, Brendan Sullivan, was out of town and did not immediately respond to a message.

Federal investigators have been looking into Gray’s campaign since shortly after he took office in January 2011. Two campaign aides to Gray pleaded guilty in May to making straw donations to another mayoral candidate, Sulaimon Brown, and attempting to cover up the payments. Brown was paid to stay in the race and make negative comments about then-mayor Adrian Fenty, the aides acknowledged. Gray has denied knowledge of the payments and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The charges against Harris appear unrelated to the payments to Brown, although they raise broader concerns about the financing of Gray’s campaign. In addition to the straw contributions, federal investigators are looking into the possible existence of an off-the-books “shadow campaign” for Gray, according to people familiar with the probe who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

Thompson and his donor network — which includes colleagues, employees and other associates — have also been major contributors to candidates for federal office, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Delegate Donna Christensen, who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Congress. Harris and her co-conspirator made straw contributions to federal candidates between January 2008 and March of this year, according to the documents.

Harris’ conspirator would organize fundraisers and solicit donations with the promise that donors would be reimbursed, according to the documents. Harris would also promise reimbursement and use funds from her conspirator’s businesses to pay back donors, the documents show.

In 2008, Harris contributed more than $14,000 to federal campaigns and solicited another $6,900 in contributions from associates, all of which were reimbursed by her conspirator, the documents show.

Harris and her two companies contributed $6,000 to Gray’s campaign, and 16 relatives, friends and associates gave Gray the maximum $2,000 each — a total of $38,000, the documents show. Harris and her associates were reimbursed for the entire $44,000, according to the documents.

Harris faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison on the federal conspiracy charge, three years on the fraud charge and six months on the local conspiracy charge, although she would stand to receive a fraction of that time under federal sentencing guidelines.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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