News & Politics

US Attorney Ron Machen Is Leaving Without Finishing His Biggest Case

The District's top federal prosecutor steps down with former Mayor Vince Gray's 2010 campaign still under investigation.

After Jeffrey "Uncle Earl" Thompson pleaded guilty to influencing multiple elections, Ron Machen said it was "just the tip of the iceberg." Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Ron Machen, the US attorney for DC since 2010, announced Monday morning he is stepping down from the office to return to private practice. Machen, 45, will return to private practice after serving as the District’s second-longest-tenured federal prosecutor in nearly 40 years. And while the valedictory press release announcing his impending departure reads like a victory lap for the many financial-crime, counterterrorism, and public-corruption convictions he racked up, Machen is leaving without tying up one very big loose thread: the investigation of former DC Mayor Vince Gray.

Machen started poking around Gray’s first 2010 campaign almost immediately after the mayor took office, chasing suspicions that Gray’s victory was aided by $668,800 in unreported income furnished by businessman Jeffrey “Uncle Earl” Thompson. The US attorney’s office scored guilty pleas from former Gray aides Eugenia Clarke Harris, Vernon Hawkins, Thomas Gore, and Howard Brooks, but it still hasn’t come up with the goods on Gray himself.

While Machen leaves with several big trophies from DC politics—like former DC Council members Harry Thomas, Jr., Michael A. Brown, and Kwame Brown—his biggest case remains unresolved, a fact that gnaws at the former mayor’s inner circle. Gray’s former compatriots are still cheesed over “Machen Monday,” the day 53 weeks ago when Thompson pleaded guilty to defrauding several federal and local elections, including the 2010 mayoral race. Thompson’s plea hearing, held two weeks before the Democratic primary, marked the first time federal prosecutors publicly named Gray as one of the beneficiaries of Uncle Earl’s shadowy largesse.

“If he’s going to leave his job without a statement with the status on his persecution of Vince Gray, then his character is more hollow than I imagined,” says Chuck Thies, who managed Gray’s re-election bid. “To target Vince Gray in a way Ron Machen did without any evidence to back it up is truly a travesty.”

Outside of the press conference following Thompson’s admission, Machen has seldom spoke about the Gray investigation on the record. He flicked at the case’s progress during a November 2013 appearance at the Hill Center where he was asked for an update, responding cryptically that, “there’s there there and we’re trying to gather information.” While Thompson’s guilty plea came a few months later, and was followed by the conviction of another former Gray lackey, Gray’s own fate remains a matter on which District residents still expect Machen to deliver. Thies sees Machen’s resignation before a resolution on the former mayor as a prosecutorial cop-out.

“He got ahead of his own investigation and was breathing his own fumes,” Thies says. “He put himself in a position where he had no other choice but to tank Vince Gray’s re-election.”

According to prosecutors at Thompson’s hearing, Gray, at the behest of his campaign advisers, met with Thompson and submitted a one-page budget for get-out-the-vote efforts to finish out his 2010 race against Adrian Fenty. Gray lost last year’s primary to Muriel Bowser, who went on to win the general election.

The former mayor’s legal entanglements may not end with Machen’s departure. The person taking over the 300-attorney-strong office in the interim is Vinnie Cohen, Jr., who as Machen’s principal deputy, headed up the public-corruption investigations that led to the convictions of the former DC Council members and Thompson himself. The work, according to a 2012 Washingtonian profile of Machen, consumes up to 75 percent of Cohen’s time. Cohen is also a DC native and the son of one of the city’s most prominent lawyers.

But to Thies, the responsibility for Gray’s situation is Machen’s.

“The point is in America you do not convict people in the court of public opinion like Ron Machen did,” Thies says. “Vinnie Cohen didn’t point to some imaginary budget that Vince Gray wrote up. Who held that press conference? Ron Machen. Who posed for your magazine like a tough guy? Ron Machen.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.