When Washingtonians elected Muriel Bowser as mayor last year, she promised to bring a “fresh start” to the city. A "fresh start," after the campaign scandals of her predecessor, Vincent Gray. Gray is still under investigation by the U.S. attorney's office.
But in September, less than a year after Bowser took office, she confronted her own campaign-finance controversy: a new political action committee bringing in unlimited donations from wealthy donors. It was called FreshPAC, a nod to Bowser's campaign slogan.
This week, organizers announced they'd be returning the money — and shutting down the committee.
Here's how it all played out.
Founded by supporters of the Democratic mayor, FreshPAC took advantage of a little-known campaign-finance law that allows PACs to raise unrestricted donations in non-election years.
But the group quickly came under heavy scrutiny for hauling in big donations from individuals and companies that do business with the city. WAMU 88.5 documented that a dozen donors to FreshPAC were tied to more than $70 million in city contracts.
Scrutiny over the group’s fundraising had been building for weeks. At a city council hearing earlier this month, Ward 3 Council Member Mary Cheh grilled Buwa Binitie, a local real estate developer, over his donations to FreshPAC.
"Public records show that you donated $10,000 to FreshPAC. Is that correct?” asked Cheh.
"That is correct,” said Binitie.
"You are doing business with the city?” asked Cheh.
"Yes,” said Binitie.
"My question: who asked you to give $10,000, five times the amount of what you could give a mayoral campaign? Who asked to give that money?” asked Cheh.
"I don't recall,” said Binitie.
The group had raised nearly $350,000 and planned to raise a million dollars by the end of the year. The money, according to the group’s treasurer, would likely be used to help elect candidates that support Bowser’s agenda during next year’s council elections. That’s bothered many members of the D.C. Council.
“It's been plainly said out there that the purpose of this PAC is to provide a ton of money — unrestricted money — to influence the votes of council members,” Cheh said during the council hearing.
But more concerning to many was the appearance of “pay to play” politics. In other words, donors writing big checks, and in return, winning lucrative contracts, land deals or other benefits from the city.
FreshPAC’s contributors were real estate developers, like Binitie, government contractors and health care firms. Others had been appointed by the mayor to powerful boards. Some even joined Bowser on a high-profile trade mission to China this week.
Karl Racine, the city’s independent attorney general, said on WAMU 88.5’s The Politics Hour last week that his office has been “deluged” with citizens asking about FreshPAC and the “flagrant return of pay to play politics.”
“Citizens of the District of Columbia want that day to have passed,” said Racine. “They really want ‘pay to play’ politics to be over.”
The appearance of corruption isn’t exactly new to DC politics. In fact, FreshPAC's name is a riff on Bowser's campaign pledge to give Washington a "Fresh Start" after the campaign scandals of former Mayor Vincent Gray.
What is new is the use of outside groups with no campaign finance restrictions operating at the local level. It’s something campaign finance watchdogs have warned about: when SuperPACs go local.
"One concern is that they are a way for people and companies that are seeking special benefits from the city government to get around campaign-finance limits and, therefore, get more access and influence," said Robert Weschler, the director of research for City Ethics, a nonprofit that advises municipalities on ethics laws.
Unlike their counterparts on the national level, local superPACs and outside groups like FreshPAC aren't being funded by wealthy donors with an ideological bent. Instead, the big-spending political committees are often funded by interests who do business with the city government.
"There is a more direct relationship between contractors and developers at the local level than there is between organizations seeking policy changes at the national level," Wechsler said. "And a much higher percentage of what happens at the local level involves these contracts, developments, grants, licenses — there are so many ways in which local governments hand out benefits."
Moreover, large sums of money spent in local races can often tip the scales more than money spent on national races.
It's something cropping up across the country with similar outside spending groups that have been active this year from Philadelphia and New York City to Chicago andNashville.
There's little jurisdictions can do to block superPACs from injecting large sums of money into local elections due to the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision. That allowed businesses, corporations and unions to give unlimited money to these political organizations, boosting outside groups' role in elections, said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine.
"I think that those with business before city councils and local governments are going to get more involved in these independent-expenditure campaigns," Hasen said, "and they are going to have major influence over both who is elected as well as well as what policies are favored or opposed by these local government."
Even cities and states that have pay-to-play laws — which prohibit government contractors from making donations — wouldn't apply to these outside groups.
While the law may permit such groups' influence in political campaigns, public pressure may force some politicians to disavow superPACs, like what happened in D.C.
“It’ll be much harder for officials to set these kinds of things up or to work with groups that are trying to benefit them because it’ll hurt them,” said Weschler.
While Bowser initially defended the PAC, public pressure soon began to turn against the group. Last month, a majority of City Council members co-sponsored a bill to close the fundraising loophole. Last week, Attorney General Karl Racine said his office would craft campaign finance legislation to reduce “appearances of impropriety.”
This week, while the mayor was traveling in China, FreshPAC organizers announced they would dismantle the group.
FreshPAC's treasurer, Ben Soto, said in an email that the group had become "too much of a distraction for the mayor." But Soto disputes any notion that donors to FreshPAC expected anything in return for their contributions or that Mayor Bowser "even entertained such a thought."
[Music: "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box by Radiohead from Amnesiac]