Disclosure Not on the Menu at Council Turkey Giveaways
Jim Graham showed up at the LeDroit Park Apartments on Friday afternoon ready to hand out free turkeys to public housing residents. But first, he wanted to give a speech, and restless elements in the line weren't cooperating.
"I won't give away any turkeys until you listen to these remarks," Graham warned.
Talkative residents aside, the turkey giveaway is a dream for a local pol—especially one who, like Graham, is considering running for re-election. The event even looked like a campaign rally, with letters inside the turkey bags touting Graham's 2002 campaign slogan, "Unity and Progress/Unidad y Progreso." A banner from Graham's 2010 campaign, complete with signature Graham bowtie, was stretched across the truck holding the turkeys.
Best of all for the Ward 1 councilmember: It didn't cost him anything. Instead, local megadeveloper JBG footed the bill.
If you want to know how much goodwill Graham owes JBG for the giveaway, though, you're out of luck. A spokesman for the developer declined to give figures, saying only that the money was paid to a nonprofit which then purchased the turkeys. Graham himself declined to comment on how much the turkeys cost, saying that the practice has been condoned by the Council's ethics office. (Council general counsel David Zvenyach also declined to comment.)
Yes, once again, the District is in for a holiday season of councilmembers' reputations benefiting from thousands of dollars in turkey giveaways without ever having to disclose the money behind them. Providing someone with a Thanksgiving is an arguably more effective way of reaching a constituent than a radio ad or yard sign, but unlike those more traditional methods, the free turkeys don't show up on local politicans' disclosures.
Graham is awfully tight-lipped about his turkey giveaway, but at least he's revealing who paid for it. A spokeswoman for Marion Barry, whose storied Ward 8 turkey giveaway went down at Union Temple Baptist Church this year, didn't respond to LL's request for comment about the names of the events' sponsors, and Barry has been reluctant to disclose the money behind previous giveaways.
How much undisclosed money are we talking about? Consider Graham's giveaway, which included 650 turkeys handed out at multiple locations. The price of a turkey varies by weight, but the smallest store-brand turkeys LL could find were going for around $20. That would add up to roughly $13,000 worth of turkeys, a steep figure that doesn't even include the cost of the other food in the bag, which in the case of Graham meant gravy, stuffing, and canned corn and yams. (Although LL supposes the giveaway might have gotten a discount for buying in bulk.)
Such a hefty undertaking would seem like an ideal activity for councilmembers' constituent service funds. But if Graham funded his turkeys through his disclosure-bound constituent service fund, as Mayor Vince Gray does, JBG likely couldn't have funded all of it, since donations to these funds are capped at $500.
LL's not trying to be the Thanksgiving Grinch here. The people in line for turkeys at both Graham's and Barry's events were obviously grateful for the assistance. That's precisely why the donors and amounts of money involved should be made public.
Photo by Will Sommer