Donations are the most concrete way to look at the potential influence of particular actors on both individual politicians and the broader political sphere. The latter element is crucial. A reliable donor who gives large sums on a regular basis is always going to be courted and have a certain level of influence, even if their specific donations to any particular politician are not that great.
Further, campaign donations can also help us map the web of development influences that clearly have an outsized role in shaping District politics. Below we examine the donor histories and business connections between key players in the Congress Heights redevelopment project.
Geoff Griffis, well documented as a major developer in the District, is also married to Claire Bloch, a well known political consultant with close ties to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Griffis and Bloch have been quite generous to DC Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Griffis describes himself as the “master developer” of the overall Congress Heights project.
Already the pair has given $4,000 to Mayor Bowser’s 2018 mayoral re-election campaign, with both making maximum donations of $2,000. In 2014 they were a little less generous, giving Bowser’s campaign a combined $2,602; both gave around $1,200. Bowser is the head of a political coalition formed by former Mayor Adrian Fenty that is known in popular political lexicon as “The Green Team.” Griffis and Bloch have combined to donate $15,462 to various Green Team elected officials since 2004.
Both Griffis and Bloch maxed out donations ($2,000) to Fenty’s unsuccessful 2010 re-election campaign, and Griffis gave Fenty the maximum allowable donation in the 2006 election campaign. Both provided the maximum donation ($500) to then Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember LaRuby May as she sought election in 2015. Griffis and Bloch also gave Ward Councilmember Brandon Todd maximum donations in both his 2014 election campaign and his subsequent re-election campaign. Ms. Bloch alone maxed out for Todd’s re-election campaign.
Overall, including all candidates of any type, since 2004 Griffis and Bloch have combined to donate $30,473 to candidates for office in the District of Columbia.
CityPartners LLC, Griffis’ company, has given once to a Green Team candidate, a maximum donation of $2,000 to Fenty’s mayoral campaign in 2006. Overall since 2006 they have given $6,750 to candidates in D.C.
Ben Soto/Lori Soto
Ben Soto is not only a major figure in the financial side of the District’s development community, he is also the disgraced former treasurer of Bowser's election campaigns and widely derided pay-for-play PAC that was shut down soon after it was established over a number of unseemly moves it made.
Soto is working on the underwriting of the Congress Heights deal.
As you might imagine, then, Soto and his wife Lori are very generous to candidates of all stripes, spending more money than Griffis and Bloch in a shorter time span. Mr. and Mrs. Soto have already given two maximum donations to Bowser's 2018 election campaign for a total of $4,000. The two also combined for $4,000 in donations to her campaign in 2014. In 2012, when the mayor was still a member of the D.C. Council representing Ward 4, both Sotos pitched in $500, the maximum donation, putting a combined $1,000 in her coffers.
Between 2007 and 2008 Lori Soto, also gave then Councilmember Bowser $750. In 2010 Ben Soto gave the maximum donation of $2,000 to Fenty’s re-election campaign, which followed on $1,775 that both Sotos combined to give to Fenty’s 2006 campaign.
Between 2015 and 2016 the two Sotos gave $1,000 to then-Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May. When current Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd was recently seeking re-election the two Sotos also maxed out and shifted $1,000 into his campaign accounts. Overall, the Soto family has combined to personally give $14,025 to Green Team candidates since 2006.
Lori and Ben Soto have given $33,145 to candidates for office in the District of Columbia since 2006.
Premium Title & Escrow LLC, Ben Soto’s company, has given $5,500 since 2014 to Green Team candidates, and $27,350 overall to candidates for office since 2008.
Goulston & Storrs
Goulston and Storrs is the go-to law firm for D.C. corporations for anything land-use related and is often hired to help push forward redevelopment projects that promote gentrification. Paul Tummonds of Goulston represented Sanford Capital and Geoff Griffis in front of the zoning commission on behalf of the combined entity the two created from the Congress Heights properties, SanfordCityPartners.
Allison C. Prince is a Goulston & Storrs director and a member of the Economic Development & Jobs Committee of Bowser’s Transition Team. Maureen Dwyer directs the firm’s real estate group and is also the general counsel for the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The firm as a whole clearly has a strong material interest in this redevelopment moving forward. We are examining these particular people because of our judgement that they have a direct material interest in this particular project succeeding.
Tummonds gave Bowser $1,250 for her 2014 election campaign. He gave her $100 in 2008 while she was a council member. LaRuby May got $500 from Tummonds in 2015, the same amount that Fenty got in 2010 for his re-election. Overall, Tummonds has donated $5,050 to candidates in the District of Columbia since 2003.
Prince has already maxed out to the mayor’s 2018 re-election campaign, a $2,000 donation. She gave $500 in consecutive elections for Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd. In 2015, LaRuby May received $500 from Prince and in 2014 Prince donated $1,500 to Bowser. In 2010, Prince gave then-Mayor Fenty the $2,000 maximum donation, following up on the $2,000 she gave him the first time around in 2006. She also made sure to give the most she could, $500, to Bowser in 2007 when Bowser was Ward 4 Councilmember.
All told, Prince has given $9,500 to Green Team candidates since 2006. Overall she has given $15,900 to political candidates in the District over the same period.
Dwyer has not given large sums frequently but does have a long history as a political donor. In 2006 she appears to have given $3,000 to Fenty’s election campaign for mayor, which also appears to be an illegal donation. In 2008, Dwyer gave the maximum of $500 to Bowser when Bowser was a Ward 4 Councilmember. In 2010, Dwyer stayed on the right side of the campaign finance authorities, limiting her donation to Fenty’s re-election campaign to the maximum $2,000 allowable. In 2012 and 2014 Dwyer gave $500 to two separate campaigns by Bowser; one, of course, for mayor. In 2015 LaRuby May received $250 from Dwyer.
Overall, starting in 2006, Dwyer gave Green Team candidates $6,750. Overall her political donations in D.C. come to $16,350 for the decade from 2006 to 2016. Just these three Goulston employees are responsible for $37,300 to D.C. political candidates in roughly a dozen years.
At this point no one will be surprised to hear that Pat Strauss and Carter Nowell, owners of DC slum kingpin Sanford Capital, do not make donations in their own name. Their company, however, has made a few. As we will describe later this is only really a small part of the leverage Sanford Capital has had over the mayor and other elected officials. In 2014 Sanford gave a donation, now officially documented as illegal, of $3,000 to Bowser’s mayoral election campaign. In 2010 they gave Fenty $500. In total they provided $3,500 to Green Team candidates since 2010; overall they have donated $7,000 since 2007.
Earle “Chico” Horton III
Earle “Chico” Horton III is another politically connected development player with close ties to the Bowser administration. Horton is both an attorney and a developer. He is a founding partner of Graves, Horton, Askew and Jenkins LLC., in which capacity he helps represent Griffis in the Congress Heights Deal. Along with his partner Lewis Askew, Horton is also a founding partner of new boutique law firm Tiber Hudson.
Among other big name clients, Horton has represented Citigroup Global Markets; Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley; UBS/PaineWebber, Inc; Merrill Lynch; Jeffries; JP Morgan Chase; and Banc of America Securities LLC.
Horton was the chair of Bowser’s ill-fated FreshPAC that was shut down after its pay-to-play connections to city contracts was exposed. Horton was also hired by Exelon – the nations 89th largest company – as they pursued their merger with D.C. area utility Pepco. Horton was hired, interestingly enough, the same week the Bowser administration reversed its position opposing the merger. Horton had never before been a registered lobbyist in the District.
Horton was an original board member and ongoing prominent fixture at the DC Public Education Fund. Set up by Fenty when he was mayor to solicit large donations in support of his “education reform agenda,” it has received tens of millions of dollars from the likes of the Walton Foundation (Wal-Mart money), Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gates Foundation.
Horton is a fairly frequent political donor. His donation history also reveals a clear facility with the grey areas of campaign finance restrictions.
His company Blue Sky housing has given $29,020 to candidates for District office since 2006. To take advantage of the long time loopholes in the campaign finance system Horton spread these donations across several different companies with changing and overlapping addresses. This allowed Blue Sky to effectively give well beyond the existing campaign finance limitations.
Horton and his wife Karen have given just over the maximum to Mayor Bowser’s 2018 re-election campaign, giving $2,350 so far. Part of the overall total of $10,550 given by Horton and his wife to “Green Team” candidates since 2006. Of the amount pledged to candidates by Blue Sky, $10,500 benefited Green Team aligned candidates since 2006. Meaning Horton is responsible for $21,050 flowing into their coffers in that time period.