Did The FBI’s Money Fund Jim Graham’s Thanksgiving Giveaway?
LL's column this week looks at why the FBI thought it could bribe Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. One of the source documents for the piece is the transcript, available in public court records, of a remarkable conversation between Graham's former chief of staff, Ted Loza, and one of the conspirators in the taxi-bribery scandal, Ethiopian advocate Abdul Kamus, who was working undercover for the FBI at the time of the conversation.
The conversation took place on July 23, 2009, two weeks after Loza had accepted $500 in cash for himself, and $2,600 he was supposed to give to Graham, according to court records. Graham ordered the money returned and has not been charged with any crime.
The chat between Loza and Kamus is remarkable for a number of reasons, including Loza mentioning that Graham may have received money from "Pete," a self-described businessman who was actually an undercover FBI agent. The money, according to Loza, wound up as gift cards Kamus bought with cash from "Pete."
"[Graham's] taken nothing except for, you know that donation for the Thanksgiving," Loza says. Court records indicate that Graham met with the undercover FBI agent at least once before Thanksgiving in 2008.
Earlier in the recorded conversation, Loza recalls how Pete had "counted every single dollar on the table" when giving the Thanksgiving money.
"And then you got the money, it was $2,000, I forgot what it was, but then you got the money and you went to buy the, the Thanksgiving gift cards," Loza tells Kamus. "I gave it, you know, I gave, I think you gave, I don't know if you gave it to me then I gave it to you, cause you did me the favor and went and picked up."
There's no other mention in the court records of the gift cards; it's possible they never existed. Maybe none of what Loza is saying is true. It's impossible to tell what his motives are in his conversation with Kamus.
But if the gift cards did exist, what happened to them? One possible explanation is the FBI's money went to help feed some of the Graham's low-income constituents.Graham's website, which has been down for the last few days, has a blog post from Graham touting a 2008 Thanksgiving giveaway.
"Yesterday we handed out Thanksgiving baskets to 400 Ward One families at the Kelly Miller, LeDroit Park, Garfield Terrace and Cavalier apartments. They will have a complete holiday meal this year!" Graham wrote on his blog, in a post that was also sent to Ward 1 neighborhood email lists. "We also gave out hundreds of gift cards so families can buy their own Thanksgiving groceries at local markets."
You can see a picture of the event here, on Bread for the City's blog.
Graham also noted that Mayor Adrian Fenty, Bread for the City Executive Director George Jones and DC Housing Authority Director Michael Kelly partnered with him for the giveaway.
Jones, who says he remembers making a brief appearance at the event, explained to LL how these kind of things usually work. During the holidays, a politician or an organization like a church group will call Bread for the City, which gives away thousands of food baskets that contain turkeys and fixings, and ask them to provide food at organized giveaways.
Each food basket costs about $28 to $29, and Bread for the City covers the lion's share of the cost, Jones says. In 2008, he says, Bread for the City asked for about $1 a basket from partners like Graham, whose office Jones says likely organized the Thanksgiving giveaway. That likely explains why Graham's constituent services fund shows a donation of $460 to Bread for the City on Nov. 21, 2008.
But here's the kicker: Jones says his organization does not give away gift cards. "So to the extent there were gift cards, those probably came from the councilmember," says Jones, who added that he has no recollection of ever seeing anyone hand out gift cards at the 2008 event.
Graham's constituent services fund lists no other expenses that appear related to the Thanksgiving giveaway or any contributions from Kamus or anyone named "Pete." Office of Campaign Finance spokesman Wesley Williams says that if a corporation or a person wants to give away items like food cards or turkeys directly to constituents, and a politician uses the giveaway as a photo op (like Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry appears to do with his annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaways), then those donations don't need to be reported. Which means that even if Kamus did buy gift cards with the FBI's cash, Graham wouldn't have been required to disclose the money or its source.
Graham refuses to answer LL's questions about who paid for the gift cards or the comments made on tape by Loza, who was once one of Graham's closest confidants. Instead, Graham emailed this response: "Didn’t you know the 2nd gunman in the grassy knoll was to be entombed in Area 51 but the plane on which he was transported mysteriously disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle?"
The FBI also declined to discuss the gift cards, so there's no way of know for sure if the FBI money went through Graham to help low-income Ward 1 residents enjoy a nice Thanksgiving meal. But if it did happen, it's definitely not the worst thing the FBI has spent money on.
Anyway, below is the entire transcript (things get going on page 6). Some other highlights include:
- Loza telling Kamus to find seven other people or "entities" to each donate $400 to Graham's constituent service fund to take the place of the rejected $2,600 in cash. "Yeah, it can be personal checks, individuals, or entities. ... I told [Graham] that's exactly what I would tell you, I'm telling you exactly. ... if [the money] comes back, fine. If not, that's okay too." (Graham's constituent service fund received a $500 donation several weeks later from Causton Toney, the former taxicab commissioner and a business partner of Kamus and other another conspirator. Toney's house was raided by the FBI in the fall of 2009, but he's never been charged with any crimes. Graham wouldn't answer questions about Toney.)
- Loza blaming Barry for heightened scrutiny into council behavior: "People are looking very closely, all thanks to Marion Barry."
- Loza's take on how much money it was okay for him to take in the form of gifts from Kamus: "Up to $200, $300, $400, $500, $1,000 is sort of ok."
- Loza's philosophy on life: "You gotta put yourself in the line of fire. ... Sometimes the fire gets you. I understand that. You can't walk in life too carefully..."
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery