Free Turkeys Aren’t Free
While Mayor for Life-turned-Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was getting all the attention for giving away turkeys last week, several other District elected officials were doing the same with much less fanfare. Here is how D.C. Watch's Dorothy Brizill describes Councilmember Vincent Orange's turkey giveaway last week:
- A truck showed up Tuesday morning at Orange's campaign headquarters on South Dakota Avenue NE with about 300 turkeys.
- Orange's campaign and council staff helped distribute the turkeys.
- The turkeys were paid for by Fort Myer Construction, a major city contractor.
- The turkeys had stickers on them that said: "Wishing you and your family a Happy Thanksgiving. From Fort Myer Construction Company in cooperation with DC At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange."
Orange did not respond to a request for comment. But D.C. Democratic State Committee Chairwoman Anita Bonds, who works for Fort Myer and was at the giveaway, confirms those details (though Bonds disputes Brizill's account that Bonds threatened to take turkeys away from anyone who failed to sign her nominating petition for the vacant at-large seat). Bonds also provides these additional details:
- Orange approached Fort Myer to pay for the turkeys.
- Orange's office was responsible for determining who received the turkeys.
- The cost of the turkeys was in the thousands of dollars.
- There's nothing wrong with a company giving needy people Thanksgiving turkeys: "As far as we're concerned it's a good thing."
On that last point, LL is sure everyone agrees. But where things get sticky is whether these kind of city-contractor-sponsored turkey giveaways violate restrictions on giving to local pols for charitable purposes. Councilmembers have constituent service funds, from which they can raise money from donors to spend on charitable things, like turkey giveaways. As it happens, Mayor Vince Gray, who hosted several turkey giveaways last week, paid for the turkeys from his constituent service fund, according to a spokesman.
But donations to constituent service funds are capped at $500, far less than what Bonds says Fort Myer paid for the turkeys given away at Orange's shindig. Bonds says the turkeys wouldn't need to be listed as donations to Orange's constituent service account because Fort Myer was donating directly to needy families, albeit with an assist from Orange. Barry says an undisclosed nonprofit is the recipient of corporate giving (the donors of his turkeys also include Fort Myer), an arrangement that keeps his constituent service fund out of the turkey giveaway.
But what's the point of having reporting requirements and donation limits on constituent service funds if they can be so easily sidestepped? The turkey giveaways are clearly good P.R. for the councilmembers whose names are attached to the events. And as a major District road builder, Fort Myer has a vested interest in having as many friends on the D.C. Council as possible.
"It does seem that the at least the spirit of the limitations is an issue," says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. "You have to account for your money. You have to account for the money going in, you have to account for the money going out."
Wesley Williams, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign Finance, says only that his agency is "monitoring the situation" when it comes to Orange's turkey giveaway.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery