Barras: D.C.'s campaign finance enforcers?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance's audit of Michael Brown's 2012 re-election committee is a fascinating read -- although it underscores what many already knew: Financial management and oversight is not the at-large councilman's forte.

It already had been reported that more than $113,000 was stolen from Brown's campaign -- allegedly by his former campaign treasurer, Hakim Sutton, who, through his lawyer has denied that allegation. But the OCF's audit staff found an additional $12,329.48 of unexplained expenditures and $8,466.60 in previously unreported contributions.

A 2008 audit of Friends of Michael Brown disclosed similar issues: bounced checks, missing contributions and $100,000 in unexplained expenditures. Brown subsequently amended his finance report. But it's unclear whether any fines were levied against the committee. OCF spokesman Wesley Williams told me U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has had possession of that file since February.

What truly floored me about the recent 2012 audit was the guidance that the OCF provided the candidate.

For example, $350 in contributions appeared on the committee report. But that money did not appear in the campaign's bank account.

What happened to it? Did it find its way to someone's pocket? Is it waiting to be taken to dinner at the Source? Those reasonable questions went unanswered.

"The [OCF] audit staff recommended that [Brown] file an Amended Consolidated Report deleting the [$350] that were not negotiated through the bank account of the Committee," according to the report.

Really. I don't make up this stuff.

The OCF essentially told Brown to pretend his committee didn't receive those contributions. It gave the same "delete it" instructions for the $5,300 in expenditures reported by the campaign -- although it didn't appear in its bank statement.

"That was not consistent with standard auditing practice," another city auditor I consulted told me. "It gives the appearance of fraud."

Brown told me he followed the OCF's instructions, submitting a second amended report on Sept. 14.

Williams said "there is no exception" to the law requiring all contributions be submitted to the campaign's bank account. He also said the sole arbiter for the accuracy of a committee's report is its bank statement.

"Even though the contributions/expenditures were reported [by Brown], the transactions did not occur because they were not reflected on the committee's bank statement," added Williams.

Seriously?! Somebody, anybody help. These are the folks responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws and, by extension, guaranteeing fair elections.

Did the OCF audit staff give Michael Brown a golden pass? Is "delete it" the rule, rather than the exception? How many other political committees did the OCF aid and abet in the misdirection of contributions?

An annoyed Williams declined to discuss the matter any further with me. He told me Brown's committee "remains under investigation" by the OCF and "other enforcement agencies."

The fact that Machen and his team are investigating Brown's embezzlement claim -- along with allegations of corruption in other campaigns -- may be the only solace in all of this. But the feds shouldn't be expected to serve as the city's campaign finance enforcers.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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