How to interpret news that D.C. businessman and political kingmaker Jeff Thompson has been able to keep federal investigators from digging into documents that might expose a trail of corruption all the way to Mayor Vince Gray?
We learned this week that prosecutors have accused Thompson of obstructing their investigation into a "shadow campaign" that raised $650,000 for Gray's 2010 mayoral campaign. The FBI seized the documents from Thomspon's home and office last June.
The political classes were so sure the feds would pull strings from Thompson's documents that would unravel corrupt practices throughout the District government -- from health care contracting to the lottery contract to Gray's campaign. When news of the off-the-books mayoral campaign broke, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen called it "corrupt." Council members said "Resign!"
Here's the thing: if federal investigators cannot spend the months required to dig through the documents and find enough hard evidence to prove corruption, the probe goes fallow and perhaps dies. Clearly, that's what Thompson and his attorney, Brendan Sullivan, are hoping.
You can wag your finger at Thompson, as did Judge Lamberth. In his ruling made last May but unsealed this week, Lamberth wrote that Thompson's attempts to block investigators from reviewing his files would "grind the government's efforts to a halt."
Thompson appealed Lamberth's ruling that he had to open up his books. That kept the feds' fingers from the files for nearly another year. In March, the federal appeals court ruled for prosecutors that Thompson must open his files, but it added that an independent filtering team would first review them for privileged information.
Now Thompson has the option of appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court, which could keep his records out of the feds' hands for many more months.
Has anyone noticed that Vince Gray is playing the same game? After telling NBC4's Tom Sherwood that he would "continue to work with this investigation," the mayor has clammed up. On the advice of his defense lawyer, Robert Bennett, he has remained mum. He's had no contact with federal investigators or prosecutors.
Add it up: To make a case against either Thompson or Gray or both, prosecutors need evidence: incriminating statements, documents, admissions of guilt. True, three close political aides to Gray have admitted to federal crimes in connection with the campaign, but none seem to have implicated Vince Gray. Unless prosecutors can get their mitts on Thompson's documents and find hard evidence of corruption, the mayor skates.
But if Gray chooses to run for reelection, can he hope to win with unanswered corruption charges in the wind?
Perhaps. Depends on who and how many are running against him.
Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.