Thomas Soldan is a criminal defense and personal injury attorney who practices primarily in Northern Virginia, where he was born.
It is perhaps the most fundamental of the rights bestowed on every citizen by the U.S. Constitution. It is the right to vote. When anyone corrupts and influences that process with financial contributions or by any other means, it is not a victimless crime. Manipulation and corruption of the electoral process deprives every citizen of a basic right and undermines the public trust and the integrity of free elections.
Perhaps that’s what U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly was thinking when she ignored the government’s sentence recommendation for a District businessman on Monday. Jeffrey Thompson was convicted of campaign finance violations after pleading guilty in March 2014.
At this week’s sentencing hearing, Judge Kollar-Kotelly ordered Thompson to serve three months in prison followed by three months of house arrest and three years of probation. The sentence also includes a $10,000 fine. The government had asked only for home confinement despite Thompson being the leader and organizer of what the court called a conspiracy to rig elections.
Thompson, described as a self-made business mogul and American success story by the prosecutor in the case, founded an accounting firm and owned a managed-care company that contracted with the District for more than $300 million annually. It was his success and the need to preserve business that may have led to his downfall. Thompson admitted by his guilty plea to creating a shadow campaign to help a District mayor get elected and subsequently creating a scandal that drove him from office.
In 2010, Thompson set up a $650,000 slush fund to help Vincent C. Gray (D) defeat then-mayor Adrian Fenty (D). Gray denied any wrongdoing and was never charged in the investigation despite six associates — some of the many fingered by Thompson in his eager cooperation with the prosecution — already convicted or serving prison sentences. Gray lost a re-election bid against Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), but has since staged a political comeback this year by winning a Democratic primary for a seat as Ward 7 Representative to the D.C. Council.
Thompson’s sentencing marks what may be the final chapter in the long-running saga of illegal campaign donations and high-level corruption in the District. However, it remains to be seen whether the case will close the books on election fraud in the future.
As the seat of democracy for the modern free world, city leaders should be especially vigilant to investigate any additional scandals no matter how minor the infraction. That this case involved bribery, bank fraud, and illegal campaign donations made it sensational in the media, but shameful for the city.
A key point in the case was that according to prosecutors, it was concern over his government contracts that motivated Thompson to interfere with city elections. Thompson’s clouded motives may be difficult to distinguish from an unregulated corporate or private donation during a national election. While the former resulted in a crime in Washington, D.C., the latter is legal and a matter of free speech according to the United States Supreme Court.
In the past decade, the Court has ruled on a series of cases dealing with campaign contributions on the federal level. The trickle-down effect has led to many changes in national and state campaign finance laws. In each instance, the majority Justices have eroded long-standing campaign-finance regulations intended to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. In 2010, the Court decided a landmark case on corporate spending in Citizens United v. FEC, and more recently in 2014, opened the door for private donors to make unregulated contributions in McCutcheon v. FEC.
The one thing the Court did address in McCutcheon was that political contributions may only be restricted to target quid pro quo corruption – contemplating the likelihood of a case like Thompson’s where a donor endeavors to accomplish some manipulation for his gain. There may be a fine line between a bribe and a donation, and one that is sometimes difficult to distinguish, but for the good of electoral integrity, it is a line that must be guarded with close scrutiny.
Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.