Did a Wealthy Family, Which May Have Ties to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, Buy a Seat on the DC Council?

At breakneck speed Brooke Pinto has gone from virtually unknown to one of only 13 DC councilmembers, who, along with the mayor, oversee the city’s $8.5 billion budget. As the dust settles on Pinto’s stunning win, questions about the 28-year-old are growing.

Now there’s a new one to add to the mix: What’s Pinto’s connection to Mar-a-Lago?

Six months after Donald Trump kicked off his racist bid for the White House, Pinto and her family appear to have celebrated 2015-16 New Year’s Eve at Trump’s Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago.

In a December 31, 2015 Instagram post, Pinto appears to be pictured with her siblings and cousin Joanna Pinto (who posted the photo). The photo is tagged “Mar-a-Lago,” as is another one apparently taken later that evening at Trump’s party; it appears to include several Pintos, including Brooke’s father, but not Brooke herself.

Brooke’s CEO father, James Pinto, didn’t respond to a request for comment. And Brooke Pinto sidestepped questions about how often she’s been to Trump’s private club, or whether any of her family are members there. “I am not a member of Mar-a-Lago,” she said in an email to me.

To get to Trump’s black-tie event, which reportedly cost $1,000 per couple, the Pintos wouldn’t have had to travel far. Brooke’s parents have a multimillion dollar second home in Palm Beach, just four miles up the road from Mar-a-Lago.

At his New Year’s Eve bash, Trump, then the Republican presidential front-runner, glad-handed guests and in brief remarks pledged to “make America great again!” Then just before midnight, with his family and the Mar-a-Lago party as his backdrop, Trump touted his candidacy live on FOX News.

The nearly 700 guests at the party, according to a first-person account, were an exclusive bunch consisting of “club members and old friends [of Trump].” It’s unclear which of these categories the Pintos may fall into.

What is clear is that the Pintos run in similar circles as the Mar-a-Lago crowd.

In January, Pinto’s parents and a handful of Mar-a-Lago members were among the listed sponsors of the 2020 Palm Beach police and firemen’s ball. The black-tie event, held at Mar-a-Lago over MLK weekend, included a surprise appearance by Trump, who used his speech to hit on familiar themes like the border wall and liberal media, while also gloating over ordering the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

The annual ball benefits one of Trump’s favorite charities, the Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation, which appears to have an all-white board that includes several Mar-a-Lago members, including William Koch, an estranged member of the Koch brothers family.

Campaign funding

The happenings in Palm Beach may seem a long way off from Brooke Pinto’s budding Council career, but her campaign funding tells another story.

Pinto owes her 379-vote win in the Ward 2 Democratic primary in no small part to a small army of donors in wealthy enclaves outside DC (who also supported her special election victory two weeks later).

While Pinto received lots of financial support from rich donors, she got shockingly little from DC residents, according to Keith Ivey, who runs the website DC Geekery. Ivey calculates that Pinto received less than 14% of her campaign funds from DC residents other than herself, and less than 9% from Ward 2 residents – the folks she now represents.

For her primary campaign, Pinto’s top two donor zip codes weren’t in DC, but her hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, according to the DC Power Players Database. That’s excluding Pinto’s own self-funding, which totaled over $65,000 for her primary and special election campaigns.

While all of Pinto’s opponents utilized public financing (which caps donations at $50 for ward races), Pinto praised the program, but thought better of it, choosing to instead tap her family and its network. They were eager to help.

In February, Pinto’s mom donated the maximum $500 to Pinto’s primary campaign, using her Greenwich address. In March, when Dale Pinto made a second $500 contribution to the campaign – an apparent violation of DC campaign finance law – she listed her Palm Beach address.

Pinto’s uncle also appears to be a creative donor. A “Pete Kline” and a “J Peter Kline” both listed the same Dallas address when making $500 donations to Pinto’s primary campaign on March 1. That’s the same day four Klines, at three addresses, contributed $500 each to both Pinto’s primary and special election campaigns.

In response to questions about the apparently excessive donations from her mom and uncle, Pinto wrote, “Regarding any contributions that were made in error twice, donors were refunded the second donation. All of this is reflected on our campaign finance reports.”

Only it doesn’t appear to have been. At least not until Pinto’s amended disclosure, which she filed July 26, two weeks after my questions to her. (That disclosure reflects refunds to her mom and two others, but not her uncle.)

Normally it might fall to a campaign treasurer to spot excessive donations, but in Pinto’s case it was all on her.

Why was Brooke her own treasurer?” Ward 2 resident Claire McAndrew asked on Twitter. “I have never heard of this and no other candidate in the Ward 2 race served as their own treasurer.”

“That’s unusual,” said Tony Norman, a former advisory neighborhood commission chairman in Ward 1. “I don’t know of any candidate that has served as their own treasurer for any office that I recall.”

But Wesley Williams, a spokesperson for DC’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), said a “candidate can serve as their own treasurer and chairperson, if they wish,” and, in fact, “It’s been done many a time over the years.”

As treasurer, Pinto oversaw other anomalies, including unreported expenditures. After City Paper reported on the matter, Pinto amended her filing and fired her compliance vendor, Contemporary Management Inc.

The firm’s manager, Bernard Burks, said he has no ill will and wishes Pinto “the best of luck in her endeavors.” “If someone throws you under the bus,” Burks said, “you get up… and go on.”

1300 Q St NW

In addition to donations, Pinto’s parents may have gifted their daughter campaign headquarters at 1300 Q St NW, just down the street from where she lives. That’s according to a complaint filed with OCF by DC lawyer Lauren Wolfe, who contends the arrangement may amount to an undisclosed in-kind campaign contribution.

“The matter is under review and is confidential until concluded,” OCF’s Wesley Williams said in regards to Wolfe’s complaint.

For Tony Norman, the former ANC chairman, Pinto’s apparent lack of disclosure leads him to ask, “what other major contributions or in-kind services were performed that weren’t reported?”

Pinto, in her email to me, stated that her parents rented 1300 Q St NW and that her campaign “had hoped to rent out the first floor of the home at market rent for our campaign headquarters. Unfortunately, a few days later, COVID-19 materialized and my parents left the District to shelter in place and the campaign never rented or used that home.”

But Pinto’s accounting is hard to square with her having listed 1300 Q St NW as her campaign headquarters on questionnaires for both the AFL-CIO (March 3) and Democrats for Education Reform DC (due March 10). Also, in a March 5 email blast, Pinto directed her supporters to a March 21 event at 1300 Q St NW, which by early June would be decked out in balloons spelling “Brooke4Ward2.”

Can anyone explain to me how the house at 1300 Q St NW is not a massive campaign finance violation?” Claire McAndrew of Ward 2 asked on Twitter.

Less than a week before Pinto listed 1300 Q St NW as her campaign headquarters, the house was purchased for $975,000 by an LLC, “1300 Q ST NW LLC.”

While Pinto claims she’s in the dark about the LLC, its registered agent is Karan Agarwal, who donated $500 to her campaign. And Agarwal’s company, Silverstone Investment Group LLC, regularly lists its properties with real estate agent Cody McBeth, whose endorsement Pinto seems to feature everywhere – on Instagram, her website, and in mailings. (Agarwal didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

“Brooke Pinto listed the house as a campaign headquarters, she prominently features Silverstone realtor McBeth in her campaign materials and she accepted a $500 donation from the LLC’s agent Karan Agarwal,” Lauren Wolfe said via email. “In my opinion, it is highly unlikely that she would be unaware of the business transactions involving this house.”

Endorsements near and far

Brooke Pinto came to DC six years ago to attend Georgetown Law, her father’s alma mater. Last year, she registered to vote in DC. This year, she cast her first DC ballot – for herself.

To provide her candidacy with credibility, Pinto needed high-profile endorsements. She got one from DC Attorney General Karl Racine, who gave Pinto his full-throated support and a $500 contribution, then credited her victory to having “literally ran a perfect race.”

Pinto’s two years of work experience came under Racine. Her one-year fellowship in his office turned into a position as an assistant attorney general for policy and legislative affairs. Pinto only left the job in February to run for council.

(Racine has pledged that his new public corruption division will target campaign finance violations, but he may be reluctant to follow through on that if Pinto’s campaign presents his first test case.)

In addition to Racine, Pinto has other big-time supporters, including former senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who has cashed in as a lobbyist since leaving office in 2005.

Pinto also has the backing of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), who has received $7,800 from Pinto’s dad.

From the hallowed Kennedy family, Pinto has received no less than seven contributions and three endorsements (Rep. Joe Kennedy III, former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Chris Kennedy, a 2018 candidate for Illinois governor).

Familial ties may explain the Kennedys’ support, as Pinto’s grandmother appears to have been first cousins with Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow.

Trying to figure out why the Washington Post also backed Pinto is more challenging.

In a crowded field, the Post‘s endorsement can be pivotal. That’s particularly true in wealthy Ward 2, which stretches from downtown to Georgetown, and is lousy with Post readers.

“Early poll numbers had Pinto at just 2 or 3 percent,” City Paper reported, “but the tides appeared to shift when the Washington Post editorial board announced its unexpected endorsement of her campaign.”

Councilmember Pinto

In addition to narrowly winning the crowded Ward 2 primary, Pinto won a special election to fill the remaining six months of the term cut short by the January resignation of disgraced former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.

Pinto was sworn in to her truncated term June 27, becoming DC’s youngest-ever councilmember. She’s running for a full-term in November and is likely to win, as the Democratic nominee in a deep blue ward.

As councilmember, Pinto has been quick to oppose raising taxes on the wealthy, an income bracket that includes her family and core supporters. Pinto cited her upbringing in Connecticut to justify her don’t-tax-the-rich approach, which “sounds a lot like the man she replaced,” according to the Washington Business Journal. (Unlike Greenwich, DC has yet to rid itself of all but the rich, and the city suffers from one of the US’s highest rates of income inequality.)

In her primary campaign, one of the few areas where Pinto distinguished herself was in regards to stop-and-frisk. At an April debate, Pinto alone didn’t oppose the discredited practice, which has led to police disproportionately harassing people of color.

Pinto’s position may align with that of her parents, who, as noted above, donated to a foundation that benefits the police. These types of organizations have come under increasing scrutiny amid the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

‘I made an amazing 30,000 calls’

In Pinto’s telling, her rise is due to her work ethic, which drove her to make as many as 500 calls a day. “I made an amazing 30,000 calls,” Pinto told DC Line. “The other candidates had money. I just had to outwork them.”

It’s a feel-good story. Only it may not hold up to scrutiny.

Pinto was aided by the financial largesse of her family and its circle of wealthy friends and associates. It is these One Percenters, maybe more so than DC residents, to whom Pinto owes her seat. This network, therefore, merits closer examination.

As CEO of MVC Capital, what deals and investments is James Pinto involved in? And do they explain some of the head-scratching donations his daughter received?

As a first-time council candidate, why did Pinto receive max donations from, among others, right-wing former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette and his wife; Fortune 500 CEO Thomas Joyce of Danaher; former PhRMA CEO John Castellani; and attorneys at law and lobbying firms all over the country?

Pinto presents herself as a clean break from the corruption of her predecessor. But with questions unanswered surrounding her campaign, as well as her family and its network, it may be too soon to tell.

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Pete Tucker is a journalist based in DC. He writes at petetucker.substack.com