WASHINGTON (AP) — A Maryland businessman admitted in federal court Thursday that he was reimbursed for $160,000 in campaign contributions by his boss, who’s at the center of a wide-ranging investigation of political corruption in the District of Columbia.
Lee Calhoun, 65, of Silver Spring, Md., pleaded guilty Thursday to a misdemeanor campaign finance violation. Later, a consultant for the same district-based accounting firm was charged with a similar offense.
Calhoun works for Bazilio Cobb Associates, a company previously owned by Jeffrey Thompson. Although Thompson was not mentioned by name in court, Calhoun said Thursday that he was reimbursed by the company’s owner for contributions made in his own and his relatives’ names to various candidates for federal office.
Calhoun is part of a network of more than 100 donors linked in some way to Thompson who have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to political candidates. The case against Calhoun signals a new turn in U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen’s long-running investigation of corruption in district politics, and Calhoun’s lawyer said after the hearing that he expects many more people to be brought in on similar charges.
“There were lots and lots of people who made donations at Mr. Thompson’s request and who were reimbursed at his request as well,” said Edward MacMahon, Calhoun’s attorney.
That prediction came true less than four hours later, when prosecutors filed a criminal information charging Stanley Straughter of Philadelphia with making an illegal corporate contribution. A criminal information can only be filed with a defendant’s consent and usually signals a guilty plea.
According to the document, Straughter made contributions in his and his relatives’ names to two federal campaigns when he knew the money actually came from the accounting firm — then known as Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio and Associates — at Thompson’s behest. Straughter did consulting work for the firm. He currently serves as chairman of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs.
Nutter’s office declined to comment on the charges Thursday.
The charges against Calhoun and Straughter are the first related to Thompson’s fundraising for candidates outside the district, where many local elected officials have benefited from his largesse.
In addition to the straw donor scheme, Thompson is suspected of funneling $650,000 in illegal, unreported funds into Vincent Gray’s successful 2010 D.C. mayoral campaign against then-incumbent Adrian Fenty, according to court documents and attorneys in a related case.
Machen has said the result of the election was tainted by what he called a “shadow campaign.” Thompson, whose office and home were searched last year, has not been charged with a crime, but an associate has pleaded guilty to her role in the scheme. Gray has denied wrongdoing.
Thompson’s lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, declined to comment Thursday.
Calhoun pleaded guilty Thursday to a single count of making straw contributions in 2011 to Delegate Donna Christensen, a Democrat who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Congress. He admitted that the straw donor scheme allegedly orchestrated by Thompson dates back to at least 2002.
Christensen received at least $37,000 from Thompson-affiliated donors in 2011, most of whom contributed $2,300 on the same day, records show. The contributions represented about a third of what she received from individual donors in the last election cycle.
Monique Clendenin Watson, Christensen’s chief of staff, said in an email to The Associated Press that Christensen “will return or donate to charity any questionable donations,” although she did not specify which donations were considered questionable.
Straughter and his wife, Rena, also contributed to Christensen, in the same amounts and on the same dates as the Calhouns and other Thompson-affiliated donors. The AP asked Stanley Straughter last year about the donations, and he declined to discuss the reasons for them.
Thompson’s former firm has received millions of dollars in contracts with both the federal and district governments. In 2010, it received a two-year, $6.3 million contract to audit funds awarded to the Virgin Islands Department of Education.
The charges against Straughter relate to contributions in 2010 to a Senate candidate and a House candidate, according to the charging document. Straughter and his wife donated $2,000 each in May 2010 to the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and $2,300 each in October to the district’s congressional representative, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, records show.
Records show that Calhoun and his wife contributed the same amounts on the same dates to Specter and Norton, although their donations to Specter were returned.
Calhoun was reimbursed by Thompson for $83,400 in federal contributions and $76,600 in contributions to local officials in the district, court papers show. The federal campaigns include Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid and Democrat Kendrick Meek’s 2010 Senate campaign in Florida.
The local candidates who received contributions from Thompson via the Calhouns include Gray; Fenty; current D.C. councilmembers Marion Barry, Muriel Bowser, David Catania, Jack Evans and Vincent Orange; and former councilmembers Kwame Brown and Michael A. Brown, both of whom have been ensnared in the ongoing corruption probe. Kwame Brown resigned last year after reaching a plea deal on a bank fraud charge. Michael Brown, who lost his re-election bid last year, pleaded guilty this month to taking $55,000 in bribes from undercover agents.
Calhoun faces up to one year in prison under federal guidelines, but MacMahon said he would argue for no jail time for his client, who has no previous criminal record.
Calhoun told the judge that he would write a personal check to candidates, and usually the next day, he would receive a check from his employer labeled as an advance on a bonus.
“The amount would not be exactly consistent with the contribution. It would usually be $100 more,” Calhoun said. “The intent was to reimburse.”
He also described how Thompson used creative accounting to cover Calhoun’s tax obligations on the additional income.
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