front page - search - community 

Graham committee challenged

Campaign rules permit secret contributions

(Published February 25, 2002)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

Under fire from a potential challenger, Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham is defending his use of an "exploratory" committee that has raised more than $30,000 to "encourage" his re-election, but is not required to identify contributors.

Attorney Deairich R. Hunter alleged Feb. 12 in a complaint filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance that Graham is using his committee "to circumvent the campaign contributions limits and reporting requirements of the law." Hunter, a former aide to Ward 8 Councilwoman Sandra Allen who is widely known as "Dee," acknowledges he has formed his own exploratory committee to decide whether to seek Graham’s council seat this fall.

"As an incumbent, it is illegal for Graham to claim that his fundraising and media campaign qualifies as an exploratory effort," according to Hunter’s complaint. Graham’s exploratory committee recently placed full-page ads in seven local newspapers and mailed a copy of the ad to news organizations.

The District’s campaign finance regulations say "exploratory, draft or ‘testing the waters’ committee activities may include polling, travel and telephone calls to determine whether the individual should become a candidate." An exploratory committee is exempt from filing financial reports of its activities "provided its activities are limited to determining whether an individual should become a candidate," according to D.C. Municipal Regulations.

Graham and Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson are the only council incumbents among the seven whose terms expire at the end of this year who have not yet filed legal documents declaring an intent to seek re-election.

Graham, a first-term councilman who defeated longtime incumbent Frank Smith for the 1998 Democratic nomination and was then elected to represent the city’s most ethnically diverse ward, said he expects to make his decision about re-election in mid-March. He said his exploratory committee has been surveying "primarily the east side of the ward" – where demographics continue to change dramatically as neighborhoods gentrify – to gauge political support.

"I wanted to resolve any questions I have in my mind about whether [seeking re-election] is the right thing to do," he said.

The councilman dismissed Hunter’s complaint as a potential political challenger’s "effort to find an issue" for his campaign.

"Dee’s complaint is premised, I think, on the absence of a genuine consideration of whether I should seek re-election," Graham said. "He is dead wrong."

Hunter said his complaint, while directly attacking Graham, "was filed to challenge the practice of incumbents raising hundreds of thousands of dollars under the guise of exploratory committees," which are unregulated. The District’s campaign finance rules require public disclosure of an exploratory committee’s finances, and retroactive compliance with campaign laws, only if the candidate continues to use the exploratory committee to run his or her campaign.

"It is disingenuous, if not outright deceiving, for an incumbent to assert their contributions do not have to be disclosed because they are exploring re-election," said Hunter, who filed the complaint as chairman of the D.C. Citizens Advocacy Project. He said he hopes the Office of Campaign Finance will "issue a ruling prohibiting this abusive practice."

In a press release, Hunter claimed that "business interests and developers use the practice to bundle thousands of dollars in contributions to get around campaign finance limits." He alleged that several development projects in Ward 1 have been awarded by the city to developers who have contributed to Graham.

Included with Hunter’s complaint was a copy of a message, sent on Feb. 6 to a neighborhood e-mail list from an address that Graham has previously used to communicate with constituents. The e-mail message, signed by the "People of Ward One for Jim Graham Exploratory Committee," describes the committee as "a diverse group of Ward One residents, business owners, and community activists [who] launched an effort to encourage Jim Graham to continue working as our Councilmember. We wrote letters, circulated petitions, and sent e-mails to hundreds of people who live in, work in, and care about Ward One," the message continued. It also says that "over $30,000 was donated in the past seven months" to the committee.

"The public deserves to know who is contributing money and what do they expect to get in return," Hunter said. "We need to be sure [Graham] is not selling the ward to the highest campaign contributor."

While Graham asserts "the majority of dollars donated [to his exploratory committee] came from Ward 1," he said he has no intention of disclosing the source or use of funds raised by the committee.

"I didn’t create the rules, but I’m playing by them scrupulously," Graham said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator