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Last Thursday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty celebrated his 37th birthday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and you were invited.
Well, actually, you weren’t exactly invited (as in, sent an invitation) unless you were one of the approximately 10,000 folks who attended Fenty’s inauguration ball back in January, but the public was welcome all the same.
Not that they showed up. Organizers planned for 5,000, but only about a quarter of that—including Hizzoner, wife, sons, and parents—stood on the bare concrete floors of cavernous Hall E to enjoy soft drinks and entertainment from the Duke Ellington School’s Show Choir and go-go king Chuck Brown while munching on chicken skewers, cake, and crudités. (Full disclosure: LL chose to hit the Skins game instead.)
Who footed the bill? That would be the “D.C. Fund.” Sound familiar? Students of District political-finance history might recall that being the nondescript, wholly innocuous name given to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ erstwhile political action committee, formerly named the “Jack PAC,” which he shuttered after taking criticism about its payments for travel and sports tickets.
That D.C. Fund, mind you, is dead; this D.C. Fund isn’t a political action committee, but rather a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. Why do the Fenty people prefer to go the nonprofit route?
Here’s one possible reason: Unlike a PAC, nonprofits don’t have to disclose itemized contributions and expenditures, meaning that Fenty is under no obligation to turn over a full list of the fund’s donors. And 501(c)(4)’s are expressly permitted to engage in political activities.
There are a few catches. Unlike with the more common 501(c)(3) groups—e.g., charities like United Way—501(c)(4) donors can’t write off their donations on their income tax. And according to federal law, such a group must be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare” and its funds must be “devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes.”
Hence, an open-to-the-public birthday party with largely secret donors. Here’s to recreational purposes!
Ben Soto, Fenty’s longtime campaign treasurer, is one of the folks in charge of the D.C. Fund. He says they opted for the nonprofit over a PAC because the fund “isn’t serving any political or electoral purpose.”
“It’s strictly for the general purpose of promoting and improving the District of Columbia as a city,” he says. “And it’s a way to promote unity and a sense of community.…It’s not serving any political purpose at all, no election purpose at all.”
So when are they going to throw a birthday party for the District of Columbia?
Seriously: “Not serving any political purpose at all” might be a bit of a stretch for a fund whose seemingly sole purpose to date is to throw big parties for the mayor, offering big shots yet another opportunity to schmooze and munch on cookies decorated in Fenty’s trademark campaign green.
The nonprofit slush fund is a rich tradition in District mayoral history. During the Anthony A. Williams administration, several mayoral aides got into trouble for soliciting private funds for nonprofit groups, including an outfit called the Millennium Washington–Capital Bicentennial Corp., while on government time.
Few of the donors became public until a 2002 Inspector General’s report revealed that such folks as Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham and then AOL CEO James Kimsey had donated heavily to the fund. The IG found that “many of the events appear to be little more than social functions hosted by the Mayor for prominent political, business, and community leaders as well as government officials. As such, these events may be interpreted as being beneficial to the Mayor’s candidacy for re-election.”
Like the Fenty crowd, the Williams crowd used some of their nonprofit dough to throw an underwhelming party. Millennium Washington–Capital Bicentennial spent some $600,000 for the Anacostia Jazz and Blues Riverfest in June 2000, which only about 4,000 attended—approximately $150 per head. By that standard, at about $80 per birthday-party attendee, the D.C. Fund’s looking pretty good.
No one is alleging any sort of illegal activity with the D.C. Fund. The group, according to Fenty spokesperson Carrie Brooks, is controlled by a trio of Fenty boosters: Soto, former advance man Jason Washington, and old Fenty buddy Earle “Chico” Horton—none of whom currently hold jobs in the mayor’s office.
The D.C. Fund started life as the “Fenty 2006 Mayoral Inaugural Fund,” and it raised approximately $700,000 after Fenty won election but before he took office, Soto says. About $500,000 of that was spent on the ball, and about $100,000 was spent on the birthday party. A group of phone-bankers called the list of inaugural donors over the weekend asking for volunteers for the festivities.
Soto says no money’s been raised for the D.C. Fund since the inauguration and that there are no plans at this time to replenish the fund’s coffers.
The only reason any of that information is public is thanks to the magnanimity of the Fenty camp. A traditional campaign committee or political action committee is required to register with District or federal authorities, and that involves filing publicly available disclosure statements at least twice a year. 501-type nonprofits, on the other hand, have to disclose their donors to the IRS, but the feds keep those names under wraps. They are required to file a publicly available yearly tax return, but such filings can be extended until nearly a year after the close of the fiscal year.
The Fenty folk haven’t been entirely secretive about who’s backing their man. Last December, the Fenty transition team released a partial list of donors to the inaugural, featuring such names as Bank of America, Chevy Chase Bank, and the Tenacity Group, accounting for about $200,000. As for the other half-million, there’s been no disclosure to date.
This week, Soto declined to provide a full accounting of the D.C. Fund’s donors, but he says that when the group files its tax return sometime next year, the donor list will be made public.
“We’re not trying to be confidential about the operation,” Soto says. Openness, he says, “has been the Fenty theme during the campaign and during the administration.”
On Monday night, the D.C. Democratic State Committee held its holiday party and presidential straw poll at the 18th Amendment bar on Capitol Hill.
The big winner: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who won a narrow victory—55 votes to 49—over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. John Edwards, Sens. Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, and Bill Richardson captured another 18 votes between them.
The other big winner: the District Dems themselves, who seem to have righted the ship after nearly depleting their bank account earlier this year (Loose Lips, “Democrats’ Checkbook Dwindles,” 4/27). According to committee chair Anita Bonds, the committee has money in the bank (she declines to say how much, citing still-pending bills), thanks largely to the group’s Kennedys-King dinner last month—the first such dinner in three years. “We’re in much better financial shape, and we’re grateful for that,” she says.
Event organizer Phil Pannell says the party helped line the coffers, raising about $2,000 in $10-a-head door fees. It’s almost enough to comfort Pannell, an Obama supporter: “To be honest about it, I was really surprised he lost,” Pannell says. He says 34 ballots that went unreturned might have made a difference. “Maybe people just got caught up in the party,” he says.
If so, he’s got no one to blame but himself. The night’s entertainment was karaoke, and the room didn’t show much interest in taking the mic before Pannell kicked things off with a snappy “Mack the Knife.”
From there, it was showtime for the east-of-the-river council delegation, past and present: Former Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen did Etta James’ “At Last,” and Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander indulged in a solid rendition of Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 classic “What You Won’t Do for Love.” After LL left, Alexander reports, she switched to more contemporary repertoire and gave an encore rendition of Jill Scott’s “My Love.”
But Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry stole the show with a ferocious take on T-Bone Walker’s classic “Call It Stormy Monday.” Barry later sang backup on a rendition of the Temptations’ “My Girl.”
His performance may have been enough to capture some hearts and minds: The straw poll had one write-in vote—for Barry.
Additional reporting by Ruth Samuelson
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