The Governor’ of D.C. - The rise of Jeffrey E. Thompson

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The Feds really gunning for the Jamaican born Thompson.

‘The Governor’ of D.C. | The Washington Post
‘The Governor’ of D.C.
The rise of Jeffrey E. Thompson and the fall that has rattled District politics
Written by Nikita Stewart
Photography by Michel du Cille
Published on July 14, 2013
Jeffrey E. Thompson wasn’t on the list for the private party at the Bombay Club, a refined Indian restaurant a short distance from the White House,####where presidents and celebrities have nibbled on naan.
The exclusive, 21-seat event was limited to Anthony A. Williams — the District’s chief financial officer — and the top 20 fundraisers and advisers who had helped him win the Democratic primary for mayor. The victory celebration had already begun on that September night in 1998 when Williams arrived with the relatively unknown Thompson trailing behind.

Above: Jeffrey Thompson, above right, came to the District from humble beginnings, started what became one of the country’s premier African American accounting firms and became a wealthy D.C. power player. Then came revelations about a “shadow campaign” and a wide-ranging federal investigation, with Thompson at the center of the political storm.

Max Berry, chairman of Williams’s campaign, discreetly pulled Thompson aside before he entered the intimate dinette, somewhat hidden to the left of the main dining room.
“I’m sorry,” Berry told him. “You’re not on the list.”
Thompson, tall and impeccably dressed, snapped back: “The mayor invited me.”
He had arrived at the table of District politics. He would not be brushed off.
“We had to add a chair,” Berry recalled.
Jeffrey Earl Thompson was already####a man of many distinctions.####A Jamaican immigrant who came to the District in 1975, he had co-founded one of the country’s premier African American accounting firms: Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio and Associates (TCBA).
He would go on to own D.C. Chartered Health Plan, a profitable health-care firm that managed services for 100,000 residents who were uninsured or on Medicaid.
“I always admired him,” said Williams, who describes Thompson as his friend. “He came from nothing.”
He was also a champion political fundraiser who over two decades used his wealth to extend his influence, in and out of politics. He described himself as “the Governor” of the District, even though he had never been elected to public office and few outside government knew his name.
His near-anonymity ended when federal investigators began focusing on his political spending, leading to a March 2012 raid on his homes and offices. They were on the trail of a “shadow campaign,” a hidden $653,000 operation investigators say was solely funded by an unindicted, unnamed co-conspirator to help Vincent C. Gray win the 2010 Democratic mayoral primary over incumbent Adrian M. Fenty. Court documents indicate that unnamed person is Thompson.
“It’s sad to see. It’s tragic. It’s sad that he put himself in this position. It’s sad he got bad advice or didn’t listen to advice.”—Anthony A. Williams, former D.C. mayor, who describes Jeffrey Thompson as his friend
As investigators looked more closely, they uncovered additional layers of alleged political deception by the man who publicly supported one candidate while apparently funding another in secret. Court documents that cite an unnamed person fitting Thompson’s profile describe a kingmaker running an operation that delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal “straw donor” campaign contributions to sway elections in the city and beyond.
Thompson’s rise and fall have upended D.C. politics, reordering political alliances and affecting everything from how candidates raise money to who might be the city’s next mayor.
This account is based on thousands of pages of court and city documents and more than 100 interviews, including more than a dozen with close associates and relatives of Thompson, some in his ancestral home in Jamaica.
Thompson, 58, has not been charged. His attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., declined to comment Friday and said he has a policy of not speaking to the media about pending matters. Friends of Thompson say he is holding up well under the strain, continuing to attend social events and accepting well-wishers, even as he has had to sell his accounting firm and has seen his health-care firm fall into receivership.
But the FBI has traveled as far away as Los Angeles interviewing members of Thompson’s network of a few hundred friends, associates and employees.
That group was cobbled together from Thompson’s various worlds: his mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews; dozens upon dozens of employees and their relatives from Chartered and TCBA; entrepreneurs who tapped him for advice and money; random producers, directors, actors and actresses in New York and Los Angeles; and close associates in the District, including his hairdresser.

Rarely did those worlds meet. What they had in common was Thompson’s money. They depended on him for their livelihoods and even no-interest loans based on little more than handshakes. Thompson depended upon the good graces of elected city officials who approved his lucrative contracts, which paid him millions. It was a constant circle of money, and it had protected his interests for years.
But Thompson feared that what he had built was vulnerable under Fenty, who had succeeded Williams and refused to pay obeisance to Thompson. He feared that a Fenty reelection in 2010 would cost him his $322####million Chartered contract. That was when, friends said, he made his fatal mistake.
“It’s sad to see,” Williams said. “It’s tragic. It’s sad that he put himself in this position. It’s sad he got bad advice or didn’t listen to advice.”

The beach-side Little Ochie restaurant in Alligator Pond, Jamaica, is alive day and night. The beach and recreation area was a favorite spot of Jeffrey Thompson’s when he was growing up in nearby Bull Savannah. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

He came from working-class beginnings in Bull Savannah, a small, hilly town in Jamaica’s St. Elizabeth parish. Aunt Pearl Elliott Dunkley remembered him being a bit sickly, or “fragile.” His friends recalled a shoeless boy running the dirt roads reddened by bauxite, swimming, catching crabs and shooting birds with slingshots.
He was the youngest of 11 children born to Myrtle and Charles C. Thompson. His father was a farmer, a worker at the local bauxite factory and a truck driver who was well respected for being one of the first in town to travel long distances, friends and relatives said.
“It was a firetruck, an ambulance, a taxi,” Bull Savannah’s Beverton “Teddy” Roye, who remains one of Thompson’s best friends, said of his father’s truck. “If anybody got sick, you had to call Master Charlie.”
Derrick Rochester, Thompson’s cousin, said the elder Thompson drove workers each morning to the bauxite factory.
“He would drive out at 5 a.m. to come pick us up, and he would never be late,” said Rochester, a highly decorated, retired member of Parliament and trade unionist.
Jeffrey Thompson’s love of numbers began when he was a young boy working in the shop of his maternal grandparents, Wintworth and Edith Elliott.

“He was a young grandson, so he got a lot of attention, a lot of nurturing,” Dunkley said of Thompson.
The Elliotts operated the shop like a general store, extending credit to their customers.
“Nothing written down,” said Dunkley, 79. “There was a lady who had 24 children. Every Christmas I couldn’t wait to hear if she had a new baby.”
People could repay them a year or more later, Dunkley said. Other relatives said some people went to their graves owing the Elliotts.
Thompson’s eventual journey to the United States was a necessity, friends and family said. Bull Savannah, which currently has a population of about 7,000, did not yet have a public secondary school that students could easily attend for free. Entrance into the local boarding schools — Munro College for boys and Hampton School for girls — was an impossible feat for children of Thompson’s background, friends and relatives said.
“No fault of ours, we didn’t make it,” Roye said. “You made it if you were able to pay your way in.’”
Thompson, Roye and Levi Lewis — classmates who faced a premature end to their education — were saved by a program that Rochester started. In two classrooms with glassless windows and cement floors at Junction Secondary School, the boys took accounting while most girls took secretary courses.
 

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In the early 1970s, Myrtle Thompson was so distraught after losing two of Thompson’s siblings — a daughter from natural causes and a son assumed drowned in the Caribbean — that she moved to the District to be with relatives, Dunkley said. She worked as a domestic.
Jeffrey Thompson, his father and his other siblings followed a few years later. Thompson once pinpointed the date when he moved to the District as Feb. 15, 1975. He was weeks shy of his 20th birthday.
His family lived in an apartment at 16th Street and Columbia Road NW, said his brother Barry Thompson, 70, a former construction worker who said Jeffrey has helped him financially through the years.
Barry said his younger brother started his climb in that crowded Columbia Road apartment. “That’s where he built his foundation. He would start every night. He would get juice out of the fridge and start studying,” he said. “You work hard. You study hard.####. . .####He was tremendous in what he did.”
Jeffrey’s educational certificates from Jamaica did not transfer, so he earned a GED and enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia.
“At that time, he told me point-blank he was going to open his own business,” classmate Roxroy Anderson said. “He wasn’t too keen on working for anybody.”
To pay his way through school, Thompson worked as a bookkeeper for the National Rifle Association. His father found concierge work at the Mayflower, the downtown hotel. In 1979, mother, father and son jointly bought a modest rowhouse on Farragut Street NW for $55,000. They borrowed $50,500.

Starting out

Thompson
THOMPSON, COBB, BAZILIO
AND ASSOCIATES (TCBA)
Ralph Bazilio
University of the District of Columbia graduate
Tanya R. Curtis-Haley
Original partner, left company in 1994
Michael J. Cobb
Tulane University graduate, replaced Curtis-Haley
In May 1980, Thompson, now 25, was among the graduates from UDC’s business school to be honored at its ninth annual awards dinner. Thompson stood out, not just for his ambition but also for his posture and natty attire.
“He didn’t just dress tall,” Anderson said. “He walked tall.”
He interned at Mitchell & Titus, a top minority-run accounting firm and a New York-based affiliate of Ernst & Young.
After college, he became the financial services manager of the Washington Business Development Center under a Commerce Department minority business program. Thompson later said that while at the center he secured “over $23####million of debt and equity financing for numerous minority-owned businesses in the Washington metropolitan area.”
In 1983, he co-founded TCBA. Ralph Bazilio, a UDC graduate from Guyana with an immigrant background similar to Thompson’s, became his partner. At one time, the C in TCBA was for Tanya R. Curtis-Haley. She left in 1994 and formed her own firm.
Thompson and Bazilio found another C in accountant Michael J. Cobb, a Tulane University graduate whose father had co-founded Independence Federal Savings Bank, one of the largest minority-owned banks in the country.
While in his 30s, Thompson landed an influential client: the venerated Dorothy I. Height, longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women. The young accountant and the civil rights icon soon became close friends. Former city administrator Robert C. Bobb described their relationship as “mother and son,” remembering how Height once doted on Thompson during lunch at the Capital Grille.

Height gave Thompson instant status; he gave her organization financial assistance. Years later in 1996, Height’s group wanted to purchase its $11####million headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. Thompson later said he raised the down payment in 15 minutes.
Rising up


Through Height, Thompson met Alexis Herman, who within a few years would become White House public liaison, then secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Thompson and Herman were both visiting an ill Height one evening. Thompson offered Herman a ride, which turned into dinner and eventually romance. (Herman declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“They were in love,” Barry Thompson said.
Jeffrey escorted Herman to the 1994 state dinner for Nelson Mandela. He mixed with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Harry Belafonte as Whitney Houston sang and everyone dined on halibut with sesame crust and bibb salad.
Herman, known as a problem solver, helped Thompson gain a reputation for being one, too.
In 1990, Eleanor Holmes Norton was the front-runner to become D.C.’s non-voting delegate when she and her then-husband, Ed, ran into troubles over unpaid income taxes.
Donna Brazile, Norton’s good friend, called Herman, who recommended Thompson’s firm, according to Brazile’s autobiography. He took charge. “Jeff, an accountant with a Caribbean accent, talked fast while Ralph, his partner, sat taking notes, reviewing Ed’s materials and listening,” Brazile wrote.
The Nortons quickly wrote a check for $25,000, and she went on to win the seat, which she still holds.
It is unclear when Thompson and Herman, who married her current husband in 2000, broke up. Friends say Thompson today is guarded about his social life. But he bought Herman’s Crestwood home in January 1995 for $366,000 and continued to run in the circles to which she introduced him.
In June 1997, Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Committee dinner in the Crystal Ballroom at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel. Thompson was one of contributors he thanked.
Two decades after his father found work in a hotel, Thompson was a VIP guest.

A power player emerges

While Thompson was spending the 1980s and early ’90s expanding his accounting firm to several cities and being schooled in the ways of Capitol Hill, the city was becoming crime-ridden and heading for financial collapse.
The FBI busted Mayor Marion Barry in January 1990, recording him smoking crack in a Vista International Hotel room. The grainy video of the arrest would play over and over on national television.
Barry’s fall and comeback took place during the same period that African Americans were gaining power nationally. Lawyer and lobbyist Ronald H. Brown, elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was part of a group of black politicos crucial to Clinton’s 1992 election.
Clinton, called “the first black president” by prizewinning author Toni Morrison, appointed more African Americans to high-level positions than any president. Among them was Anthony Williams, a bow-tie-wearing lawyer whom Clinton tapped to be the chief financial officer of the Agriculture Department.
During a meeting at the USDA, Williams was introduced to Thompson.
They had an immediate affinity.

Getting political

Mayor Marion Barry
Thompson volunteered on Barry’s mayoral transition team and recommended Anthony Williams for D.C. chief financial officer in 1994.
Anthony A. Williams
Elected mayor 1998.
Thompson acts as a kitchen cabinet adviser to Williams.
Though Williams was far more educated, with a degree from Yale and two from Harvard, they shared a love of accounting, were not that far apart in age and had been reared in large families in working-class circumstances.
Williams, although perceived as aloof, had a taste for self-deprecation and slapstick, able to embrace the contemptuous nickname “Mr. Bow Tie.” He once livened up a party at the Argentine ambassador’s home by jumping fully clothed into the pool.
 

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Marion Barry proved to be another ally. He emerged from a six-month prison sentence for cocaine possession to stage a major political comeback, winning a council seat in 1992 with 70####percent of the vote and a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
He tapped Thompson to be on his mayoral transition team.
The city’s financial crisis had worsened to a $722####million deficit, and Congress created a financial control board to take over the city’s budget. The mayor had the power to appoint a chief financial officer to oversee the budget and report to the board, but only Congress had the authority to remove the CFO.
Barry selected Thompson to serve on the search committee for the vital position. “He contacted me about the CFO job, and the rest is history,” Williams said.
Thompson personally delivered Williams’s résumé.
Williams was eventually credited with dramatically turning around the city’s finances and was drafted by concerned residents to run for mayor. And Thompson was there for the ride.
But the usual politicos were not used to Thompson.
His attire alone distinguished him. “When I first met him, he was always well dressed in a vested suit,” said Max Berry, 77, a longtime fixture in D.C. politics who led Williams’s fundraising team as campaign chairman. “Always a funny-looking hat, like he was from Mississippi or on a Mississippi riverboat, something out of a Mark Twain novel. . . . Very old-fashioned but in good taste.”
Thompson wasn’t just a bull in a china shop. He was the china-shop owner. He believed in ceremony, decorum and an adherence to formalities. His critics considered him pompous.
“I’ll probably regret this as soon as I say it, but I knew from the moment I met him I was never going to be his best friend,” Berry said. “He’s what you would call a bit politically flamboyant.”
“He would always say, ‘The Governor is adding value.’ If you didn’t know him, you would think it was egomaniacal.”—Max Brown, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Anthony Williams
Once, during a fundraiser, Thompson held court at the Hay-Adams hotel, according to a political consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing federal investigation. “I walked in, and there was Jeff at the head of the table. Beautiful china. All of a sudden, ding, ding, ding,” the consultant said, hitting a plate with a knife to demonstrate. “He had on a top hat — I swear. He took it off and said, ‘Gentlemen.’ He passed the hat around, and people filled it with checks.”
Max Brown, 48, who worked as counsel to Williams when he was city CFO and who served as deputy chief of staff when he was mayor, described Thompson as a kitchen cabinet adviser to Williams.
Thompson talked about himself in the third person. “He would always say, ‘The Governor is adding value,’ ” Brown said. “If you didn’t know him, you would think it was egomaniacal.”
In one breath, Brown described Thompson as “kind,” “generous” and “ruthless.”
By the mid-1990s, Thompson still had much to prove. The accounting firm was thriving, stretching into five cities from the District to Los Angeles. He was wealthy, but he sought more.
His moment arose through another man’s misfortune.
By 2000, retired Army Col. Robert L. Bowles had spent years creating and building D.C. Chartered Health Plan, which had a contract to manage health care for some of the city’s poorest residents. Hoping to expand, Bowles teamed with Reston-based PHP Healthcare. When that company went bankrupt, “we became collateral for the lender,” said Bowles, who has a doctorate in business and health-care administration. “In the end, the liquidating trustee decided to sell the company.”
Thompson would be the new owner.
Bowles said his effort to buy back the company was rejected.
“It was extremely painful. You build a company####. . .####I had built a company that became a family,” he said, trailing off.
Thompson paid $4####million for it in May 2000.
Correction: The original article stated D.C. General was the only acute-care hospital east of the Anacostia River. The hospital was located west of the river and mainly served residents in the eastern part of the city. The article has been updated to reflect this.
The value of Chartered soared in 2001 after Williams and the financial control board closed the city-run D.C. General, the only acute-care hospital serving poorer residents who mainly lived on the eastern side of the city, and created the D.C. Healthcare Alliance, a program for uninsured, low-income residents who did not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Chartered would play a key role in setting up the program and would later provide the care for the patients under a city contract.
Within years, the company, which had about 25,000 enrollees under Bowles’s ownership and $26####million in annual revenue, grew to serve 100,000 residents and was bringing in $322####million a year under its city contract. From 2006 through 2008, Thompson’s solely owned holding company received $7.7####million in dividends, records show. Chartered also paid millions in contracts to other Thompson businesses, such as TCBA and RapidTrans, a shuttle service for patients.
“He paid Dr. Bowles $4####million for Chartered and built it into a $300-million-something enterprise,” Marion Barry said. “He’s one of the few black people in the United States who built this kind of [managed-care company].####. . .####That takes quite a bit of skill.”

Bull Savannah Primary School sixth-graders, from left, Britannia Johnson, 11, Daniella Hall, 11, Britney Ellis, 13, and Britany Durrant, 12. Jeffrey Thompson donated about $30,000 to the Jamaican school he attended as a youth. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Thompson could now afford the finer things — tailored suits, Taittinger champagne, a vintage burgundy Jaguar and Wizards floor seats.
More importantly, the money gave Thompson enormous power and an extraordinary ability to extend generosity to his friends and family, from the District to Jamaica. In his home town, he donated about $30,000 to the primary school he attended, for a computer lab, library, parking lot and canteen renovation.
Seven or eight members of Thompson’s large extended family have earned doctorates, in areas such as psychology, sociology and medicine, said his aunt, Dunkley, who has a doctorate in education from Columbia University. But Thompson is, by far, the most successful financially.
When he visited Jamaica, it was as if Santa Claus had come. He would stand at the gate of his parents’ home, listening to the hardships of residents and passing out money. “It’s like a holiday when he comes down here,” said Sydney Elliott, 91, his uncle.
Throughout the year, he contributed to residents selected for him by Seaview Baptist in Bull Savannah. “Persons are without a job; some are needs, like operations. We discuss it,” said the Rev. Paul Neil, pastor of the church.
Sometimes the giving was more personal.
Last year, he paid for doctors’ visits for the cancer-stricken midwife who had delivered him, Dunkley said. He partially paid for her funeral when she died.
Levi Lewis, his former classmate, said he went into farming after retiring from his longtime career as a police officer. He lost thousands when a contract was canceled in 2009. “When he came, I told him.####. . .####He gave me $6,000 in U.S. money,” Lewis said, adding that he has never had to repay Thompson.
Local folklore has it that a con artist once bilked a woman by telling her that Thompson had sent her some money but that she had to pay to get it, said Beryl Rochester, his cousin’s wife.
In the United States, through loans and investments, he quietly provided thousands of dollars to local entrepreneurs who did not have access to capital or regular bank loans.

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