D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray might not be the most powerful figure in city politics these days.
Instead, the role could belong to a slight, bespectacled federal prosecutor whose work focuses on corruption and whose judgment of the mayor's activities could prove a significant factor in his fate.
Twice last week, Ellen Chubin Epstein stood in a courtroom and read out pages of criminal charges against a pair of Gray campaign aides in a slow, deliberate cadence.
As she read, identifying Gray as "Candidate A," she became the first U.S. official to detail publicly the inner-workings of the D.C. mayor's quest for his job, a campaign now scarred by the convictions of two operatives.
In doing so, Epstein confirmed that at least some allegations by minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown -- who alleged that the Gray campaign promised him money and a city job if he stayed in the race to criticize incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty -- were true.
Officials say the Harvard-trained Epstein isn't the only prosecutor working the probe of Gray's operation, but so far, she's been the only one to appear in court.
"She's a classic prosecutor ... very much by the book," said one attorney who requested anonymity to speak about someone who might be a courtroom adversary later.
Tom Zeno, a former prosecutor who now works at Squire Sanders, said Epstein could be valuable in a case that already includes an obstruction of justice charge.
"These things are difficult in any event, even if people are being completely open and all of the records are readily available," Zeno said. "But in this case, you've got documents being destroyed ... and that's where someone with Ellen's tenacity and grasp of the criminal law will really help out because she'll say, "Are there other ways to prove the thing that has now been shredded?' "
Through a spokesman, Epstein declined an interview request for this story. Even though she's emerged as a key player in a major scandal, Epstein isn't a career corruption specialist, having previously focused on appellate work and homicides.
She also spent more than four years tracking down Nazis who illegally entered the United States after World War II.
Epstein could remain in the spotlight for some time, since her current work could be far from concluded.
Although the probe has already secured two convictions, more charges could be forthcoming.
"We continue our efforts to get to the bottom of what happened during the 2010 election," U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen said last week.