Jeffrey Thompson pleaded guilty to funneling millions in campaign contributions but could spend no time behind bars. Prosecutors say one of the recipients was D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
Jeffrey Thompson pleaded guilty to funneling millions in campaign contributions but could spend no time behind bars. Prosecutors say one of the recipients was D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Jeffrey Thompson, a Washington businessman who pleaded guilty on March 10 to funneling millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions, got a “sweetheart deal” from prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers said.

Thompson faces a maximum sentence of six months in jail under the plea deal — far below the five-year maximum sentence under the law. If he cooperates in subsequent investigations, Thompson could serve no jail time: Prosecutors agreed to consider recommending a sentence at the low end of the guidelines, including probation or home detention.

“It looks like it’s a very good deal for Mr. Thompson,” said Russell Duncan, a former federal prosecutor in Washington and a shareholder at Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker in Potomac, Md. “He’s one of the principal actors and he’s getting off effectively with a misdemeanor sentence.”

Thompson was charged in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia with two counts of conspiracy — one for violations involving federal campaigns and one for violations at the local level. He admitted making illegal payments to reimburse political donors and funding off-the-books shadow campaigns for candidates in local and federal government.

During the plea hearing before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, prosecutors alleged that Mayor Vincent Gray (D) not only knew about an illegal shadow campaign supporting his candidacy in 2010, but personally asked Thompson for his help.

Gray, who has not been charged, denied any wrongdoing. In his State of the District address on March 11, he said he did not break the law and questioned Thompson’s trustworthiness.

Given the likelihood of attacks on Thompson’s integrity, David Douglass, a former federal prosecutor and partner at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, said government lawyers must be confident Thompson has the information they need. “They’re not going to give a sweetheart deal to someone who couldn’t deliver,” he said.

OFFICE TOOK AN ‘OPPORTUNITY’

During a press conference last week, U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said his office structured the deal to give Thompson incentives to cooperate and provide “unprecedented” information. “Given that opportunity, we decided to take it,” Machen said. He said Thompson’s cooperation would be lengthy and that the information released thus far was the “tip of the iceberg.”

Williams & Connolly represents Thompson. Tobin Romero, a partner in the white-collar defense practice, appeared in court with him. Romero did not respond to a request for comment. Partner Alex Romain is also on the defense team. Partner Brendan Sullivan Jr. has represented Thompson for more than a year as he wrangled with prosecutors over the review of millions of pages of documents seized in 2012 under a search warrant. Sullivan also could not be reached and was not in court during the plea hearing.

Thompson agreed to drop his fight over the search warrant as part of the plea deal. After losing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, his lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the dispute. In late February, the U.S. Department of Justice urged the high court not to take the case.

Duncan said the search warrant fight may have been a “somewhat strategic” move by Thompson’s lawyers to leverage a favorable deal. “The government would probably rather not be fighting at the Supreme Court with Williams & Connolly over documents,” he said. The search warrant dispute showed Williams & Connolly’s willingness to fight, said A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of Reed Smith’s D.C. office and a former prosecutor. Prosecutors presented a deal that was “too good to pass up,” he said.

Machen faced questions about the timing of the charges against Thompson. Early voting for the April 1 primary election begins on March 17, with Gray battling more than a half-dozen challengers in his bid for a second term. Machen said the timing was not politically motivated. Prosecutors, he said, moved ahead with the case once they had the necessary evidence. Bolden said he believed prosecutors offered the favorable deal in part to secure a plea before the election. “It’s hard to argue there wasn’t a relationship” with the election being so soon, he said. (Bolden contributed to Gray’s campaign this year.) From 2006 to 2012, Thompson made more than $3 million in unlawful contributions to at least 15 mayoral and city council candidates and 13 federal candidates and multicandidate political action committees, according to prosecutors. Although most candidates’ identities were kept secret, Kollar-Kotelly ordered the government to publicly acknowledge that one of the candidates was Gray.

Thompson also pleaded guilty to filing false corporate income tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service to cover up the illegal campaign contributions. He is scheduled to be back in court on May 15.

Duncan called it a “very classic” public corruption prosecution, citing guilty pleas beginning in 2012 by Thompson’s lower-level co-conspirators. Although Thompson was the scheme’s architect and money man, he said, prosecutors likely offered the deal because they saw Gray and other elected officials with alleged ties to Thompson as the biggest targets.

“They’re moving steadily and aggressively upward,” Duncan said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at ztillman@alm.com.