Loose Lips

Disclosure Not on the Menu at Council Turkey Giveaways

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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

  • Ward One Resident

    Wouldn't the nonprofit in question have to disclose their donors if an intrepid reporter asked?

  • Mike Madden

    @ Ward One Resident:

    Only if the donation for the turkeys is big enough to be required to show on their tax filings, and then those are still a couple years behind.

  • Ward One Resident

    The article doesn't mention it, but does LL know what the nonprofit is that purchased the turkeys? Did LL ask?

    Also,using that banner would violate campaign finance laws (a la using the Fenty signs).

    Like LL, this Ward One resident doesn't want to be grinchy about turkey giveaways, but turkey giveaways also shouldn't be used to buy votes (sorta but not really).

  • DC Dude

    So Graham didn't really do anything.

    A developer with business in Ward 1 paid a non-profit to buy the turkeys, but NOWHERE is the non-profit's logo or a representative.

    Graham gets the credit but he actually did nothing.

  • Elfland

    This calls for a haiku

    Turkey struts in ledroit
    Construction fences arise
    Onward and upward

    And a zen koan for good measure

    If 450 turkeys get drivers licenses, is the vote next?

  • Elfland

    I'm sorry, make that 650 turkeys getting drivers licenses.

  • Pingback: WP | News: Turkey time in D.C. | USA COUNTRY

  • noodlez

    STORY POSTED BY WILLY EARL BUT IF I CLOSED MY EYES I WOULD THINK SEWERMAN WROTE THE PIECE.

    I'M ALL FOR GIVING BACK FROM WHENCE YOU TOOK. SO LET WHOEVER IS BLESSED WITH CONTRACTS WITH DC GOV BLESS DC RESIDENTS WITH TURKEYS, GIFT CARDS, MOVIE TICKETS OR WHATEVER THEY DESIRE TO GIVE BACK.

    WHAT I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH IS A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL RECEIVING A $12K ITALIAN BIKE AS AN ILLEGAL GIFT THAT NO ONE SEEMS TO KNOW WHAT HAPPEN TO IT OR WHERE IT IS BUT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE WORRIED ABOUT CORPORATIONS GIVING MONEY TO SOME PASS THRU CHARITY TO FEED FOLK DURING THESE TROUBLING TIMES?

    THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU HAVE EYES WIDE SHUT!

  • Mike Madden

    @ noodlez:

    No one has any problems with the corporations giving people turkeys. The problem comes when the corporations give the money for elected officials -- who may be running for re-election this year, as in Jim Graham's case -- to give the turkeys away and get the benefits of that generosity, without disclosing how much money is involved. If the guy who got the Colnago had done the same thing with turkeys, you'd have been up in arms about it.

  • noodlez

    MAD MIKE I'M ACTUALLY UP IN ARMS, IN MY FEELINGS ETC. ETC. IT'S NOT A GOOD DAY IN D.C. RIGHT NOW MY SKINS ARE IMPLODING RIGHT BEFORE MY EYES, RG IS SHELL SHOCKED, WINTER IS COMING EARLY AND FOLK ARE HUNGRY & HOMELESS BUT WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT WHO FOOTED THE BILL FOR THE GENETICALLY MODIFIED TURKEYS?

    HAPPY CHANUKAH!

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