District Mayor Vincent Gray's planned weeklong business trip to China to sell the city's investment opportunities kicks off this week just as public attention to the federal probe into his election campaign is increasing.
The trade mission is Gray's first overseas trip as mayor and has been planned for months. But it comes at a time when question about the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign are multiplying, now that two other high-profile elected officials have resigned as a result of separate investigations.
Experts say Gray is taking a risk by making the trip while the political cloud around him thickens. But they differ on whether he should go at all.
"He's already committed," said Levi Rabinowitz, a Baltimore-based crisis communications consultant. "To not go now would say more about the suspicion around him than it would say about his defense."
But Aileen Pincus, founder of the communications firm Pincus Group in Silver Spring, said Gray should stop pretending the investigation into his campaign isn't impacting his job.
"Is [China] really a top priority on the city's mind right now? I sort of doubt it," she said. "I personally think it sends the wrong message."
Privately, officials said they are not worried the investigation will have an impact on Gray's goals in China.
One deal that could emerge from the trip, according to an administration official, is a $40 million investment by Chinese businesses in the District's O Street Market, which is being restored and developed by Roadside Development. Two officials from Roadside are also making the trip along with Gray and his delegation of five other city officials and 14 other local business executives.
Gray is also touting his commitment to China business with the opening of a D.C. office in Shanghai.
"We've been working on this almost from the time we came into office," he said. "We see it as part of a broadly based economic development program, and I think the failure to recognize the chances to have investors elsewhere is really a lost opportunity."
The trip will run a tab of about $22,000 for the city, which will cover travel, lodging and per diem for Gray and three other officials. The federally funded trade program Export D.C. is paying for one of its staff members and the director of the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development. The private business travelers are paying their own way, city officials said.
The trip will start in Beijing, where the District will renew its nearly-30-year-old sister city agreement with that city. Two city development officials will also be speaking at the Beijing Global Sustainability Conference.
The trip then moves to Shanghai, then Suzhou where District officials will sign an economic development goals partnership agreement with that city.