Democracy Is For People, a campaign finance oversight group, filed a complaint with the Washington, D.C. Office of Campaign Finance on March 7 alleging that Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) illegally accepted more than 20 campaign donations during her 2014 mayoral campaign.
According to the complaint, the organization worked with its umbrella advocacy group Public Citizen to look into Bowser’s donations after the Washington City Paper reported that Bowser accepted a $3,000 campaign donation from the development group Sanford Capitol, $1,000 over the limit for individual campaign donations in the District.
After completing their investigation, the group counted 23 total donations and $31,500 in supposedly illegal funds.
Aquene Freechild, the co-director of the Democracy Is For People campaign, submitted the complaint and said the organization also wanted to depict the influence of corporate real estate developers in District politics. Of the 23 total allegedly illegal donations, 15 are from real estate companies.
“We felt it was a really important moment to share that this is not a unique circumstance, but rather that many developers and real estate folks have been the backbone of the Mayor’s funding as well as many members of the council over the years,” Freechild said in an interview with The Hoya. “We don’t think that that’s ideal when you have a city where affordable housing is one of the biggest crises that we’re facing.”
However, according to The Washington Post, development groups in the District commonly make multiple maximum $2,000 donations to local candidates. Frequently, initial donations are made in the name of the corporation itself and then given in the names of the company heads. This practice is legal under District campaign finance law.
In 2014, Bowser’s campaign received more than 7,000 individual donations totaling $3.6 million in contributions, according to the Office of Campaign Finance’s E-Filing system.
“If these reported excessive contributions were not simple reporting errors, but instead reflect a consistent pattern of negligence and failure to comply with the District’s campaign finance law, we ask that appropriate corrective action be taken to ensure that such abuses do not continue,” the complaint said.
OCF Spokesperson Wesley Williams confirmed in an email to The Hoya that the office received the complaint and that the matter is under review, but would not comment further.
The Washington Post also identified other donations the campaign identified as potentially violating district law are the fault of clerical errors by the Bowser campaign.
For example, two $2,000 donations appeared in Bowser’s campaign donation records that appeared to be donated by the same individual, Franklin Haney, were actually donated by a father and a son named Franklin Haney, Sr. and Franklin Haney, Jr.
Bowser’s 2014 campaign treasurer Ben Soto said though the campaign may have made small errors, the District OCF already looked into their donations during 2014 and again this year after the campaign account was closed and found no wrongdoing.
“The Muriel Bowser for Mayor Campaign Committee has always acted in good faith with full transparency,” Soto wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Like all campaign committees in the District of Columbia, the campaign committee was subjected to a complete vetting by the OCF, which resulted in the campaign committee being terminated with no reported violations. We will continue to work with OCF to make sure there were no excessive contributions from any contributor.”
Freechild said regardless of why the mistakes were made, District residents deserve an explanation from Bowser’s administration.
“If it’s sloppiness they should still apologize and fix it,” Freechild said. “If this was something that every treasurer goofed up on we would have a bigger problem. But not everyone who runs for office has this many mistakes, if that’s what they are.”
Freechild added that she believes that these instances were more than just mistakes.
“I think that there are probably some bigger problems there. That’s why we asked for an investigation,” Freechild said. “It could be that there are many mistakes, but they have an obligation to make that clear for the public.”
Though Freechild acknowledged that the donations the campaign identified add up to a fraction of a percent of Bowser’s total campaign donations, she said it represents a greater attitude among the Bowser campaign.
“I’ve been disturbed by the response from the Mayor’s former campaign staff,” Freechild said. “You expect that if there’s a problem that somebody would apologize and try to fix it if they’re in public office, and that’s not been the response we’re seeing,”
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