To hear some members of Congress say it, the timing of the Justice Department's plea bargain with D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson -- a.k.a. 'Uncle Earl' -- influenced the outcome of the April 1 mayoral primary.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that it was "perhaps too soon" for his committee to look at how federal prosecutors' allegations that Mayor Vincent Gray knew about a shadow campaign scheme in the 2010 election might have contributed to his loss to Muriel Bowser.
"But, you know, clearly had an indictment not been brought, the outcome of the election could have been different. I agree with that premise," Issa said. "We haven't determined a specific need for a formal investigation." Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., raised the March 10 indictment earlier that day during a House Judiciary panel hearing with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
"Part of my concern today is that the Department of Justice can leak and say whatever it wants when it wants," said Richmond, a lawyer. "Let's just look at the mayor's race in D.C., which I'm not commenting on anybody's guilt or innocence, but to have your name tied into a federal investigation three weeks before your election and to say that it leads towards you, I think affects the electoral process."
Polls showed Gray besting seven other Democrats in his re-election campaign in January and February. In mid-March, after prosecutors painted a detailed picture of how Thompson pumped more than $660,000 in illegal donations into the 2010 Gray campaign in federal court, Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the D.C. Council, began to gain in the polls.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald C. Machen Jr. led the investigation that brought about conspiracy charges . Thompson was charged with secretly funneling more than $2 million to a long list of local and federal campaigns, including Gray's, over the course of a decade. The mayor has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
"I think we are on a very slippery slope when we start leaking information right before election time, because we are influencing the election process," Richmond said.
Holder clarified that what happened in Washington was not a leak, rather a formal filing. He said he understood concern and criticism of the decision.
"But if you look at it in reverse, if the Justice Department had put something under seal and waited until after the election and then revealed the information, we would have been charged potentially with withholding information that would have been relevant for voters to have," he said.
Sometimes the timing is "awkward," he acknowledged, but cases must be brought when they are ready to go "irrespective of what the political fallout is going to be."
Gray's lawyer, Robert Bennett, said in an interview that Thompson's indictment "clearly influenced" the outcome on April 1. Bennett has predicted that his client may be indicted in office, though he maintains he is innocent and will fight the charges.
"You’d have to be a fool not to think that some thought went into the timing,” Bennett said.