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apol­o­gize and give the money back, but it’s re­ally up to a pros­e­cu­tor to say, ‘Well, we want to look at this.’ ”

Mr. Gray’s cam­paign has not re­ceived a sub­poena, but the re­quest might not be nec­es­sary be­cause fed­eral au­thor­i­ties have been re­view­ing his cam­paign since last year and may have al­ready looked at records re­lated to Mr. Thomp­son’s con­tri­bu­tions.

The key ques­tion is whether a pat­tern of con­tri­bu­tions from Mr. Thomp­son and his af­fil­i­ates walked the fine line of le­git­i­mate do­na­tions among af­fil­i­ated per­sons or if con­trib­u­tors at­tached their names to checks and money or­ders they never bought, signed or even touched.

The D.C. con­tri­bu­tions un­der scru­tiny could fall un­der the com­mon prac­tice of “bundling,” in which a fundraiser gath­ers con­tri­bu­tions from con­tacts and pre­sents them to the can­di­date. The prac­tice, while le­gal, al­lows cor­po­rate donors to use af­fil­i­ated com­pa­nies to do­nate re­peat­edly and can bring in do­na­tions from far-flung ju­ris­dic­tions with few ties to the can­di­date.

“Bundling it­self isn’t the prob­lem,” said Craig En­gle, a cam­paign-fi­nance ex­pert at the Arent Fox LLP law firm in North­west. “It’s when you don’t bun­dle, yet still show up with a bunch of checks — now that’s the prob­lem.”

What Mr. En­gle al­luded to is a process in­volv­ing “straw donors,” in which peo­ple al­low some­one else to make do­na­tions in their names through fraud­u­lent checks or money or­ders, or ac­cept a re­im­burse­ment for pay­ments they have made to a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.

“Giv­ing in some­one else’s name is tech­ni­cally a crime, but it’s been hap­pen­ing for­ever,” said Clyde Wil­cox, a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. He added it is more com­mon on the fed­eral level than on the state or lo­cal level.

Mr. Wil­cox, who com­mented gen­er­ally and not specif­i­cally to the sit­u­a­tion un­fold­ing in the Dis­trict, said he has seen con­trib­u­tors use rec­i­proc­ity deals — one donor gives to a politi­cian in an af­fil­i­ated donor’s city, and the fa­vor is re­turned — to build a net­work for bundling.

“They say you start with the peo­ple who can’t say no to you, then move to peo­ple who just like to be part of the ac­tion,” Mr. Wil­cox said. “It skirts the in­ten­tion of the law, but it’s not il­le­gal.”

De­spite the hub­bub, it is un­clear if any­one in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Mr. Thomp­son’s cam­paign ac­tiv­i­ties has done any­thing il­le­gal or if any wrong­do­ing could climb the cam­paign hi­er­ar­chy to be­smirch a sit­ting politi­cian.

Mr. En­gle said that to charge a can­di­date or of­fice­holder, a pros­e­cu­tor would have to prove in­tent — “that the can­di­date knew the acts that were go­ing on, knew those acts were il­le­gal, yet know­ingly par­tic­i­pated in them and in­tended to ben­e­fit from them.”

Ei­ther way, it is rare to see “such an across-the-board in­ves­ti­ga­tion” among a body of law­mak­ers as is oc­cur­ring in the Dis­trict, he said.

“Maybe in Dashiell Ham­mett nov­els, but not here to­day,” he said, re­fer­ring to the pop­u­lar mys­tery writer from the early 1900s.

Some law­mak­ers in the Dis­trict were quick to note that their cam­paign trea­sur­ers re­ceived the sub­poe­nas, dis­tanc­ing them­selves from the le­gal mat­ter.

When New York City Comp­trol­ler John Liu found him­self em­broiled last month in al­le­ga­tions of us­ing straw donors, it was his 25-year-old trea­surer who was ar­rested.

Mr. Wil­cox said the can­di­date can usu­ally rely on “plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity” to avoid crim­i­nal li­a­bil­ity for ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing their cam­paign. It is the trea­sur­ers and bundlers who face the heat, be­cause they were the ones an­gling for the plau­dits and spoils that come with rais­ing big bucks.

But D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Jack Evans, Ward 2 Demo­crat and the first mem­ber to ac­knowl­edge his cam­paign’s re­ceipt of a sub­poena, said it is wrong for any of­fi­cial to push blame onto his or her cam­paign team.

“It’s the Harry Tru­man thing, right? ‘The buck stops here,’ ” Mr. Evans said. “At the end of the day, the ul­ti­mate per­son re­spon­si­ble is the can­di­date.”

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