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Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham was reimbursed for nearly $1,500 he spent to attend a star-studded memorial service for Elizabeth Taylor in October 2011, city records show. The attendees at the 400-person private event held at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., included celebrities Elton John, Michael Caine, and Colin Farrell.
In paperwork Graham submitted to the D.C. Council secretary’s office, Graham asked that he be reimbursed for $1,482.36 for airfare, a hotel, and a rental car for a two-day trip to Los Angeles. Graham wrote on the form that he attended the memorial “in my capacity as councilmember.”
“It was a small but very visible event,” Graham wrote.
The event was visible, but Graham’s presence at it wasn’t: A Nexis search found no news articles that mention Graham’s attendance. Which means D.C. didn’t get much visibility for its official representation there.
Asked for comment, Graham repeated that he “went as a representative of the Council,” but did not respond to follow up questions about why his trip was publicly financed.
The trip came a month after Graham, long an advocate for increased spending on the city’s social services, voted to increase income taxes on the city’s highest earners. As councilmember, Graham makes more than $125,000 a year.
Graham knew Taylor through his last job, as executive director of the Whitman-Walker Health, which specializes in HIV/AIDS treatment. Graham approached Taylor, a prominent HIV/AIDS activist, about lending her name to a clinic on 14th Street NW. After Taylor died in March 2011, Graham shared this memory of her with the Washington Post:
I spent the most remarkable three hours with her in her living room in Bel Air in 1992. This was the genesis of getting her permission to name the new Whitman-Walker medical clinic [on 14th Street NW] after her. We largely discussed HIV and AIDS. . . . I remember that she was sitting on her couch and I was sitting on a chair, and when I could no longer absorb her incredible violet eyes, I could look above her shoulder at a van Gogh painting. . . . She was so engaged on HIV issues, so intelligent, so conversant. . . . I left totally impressed because there were so many celebrities that get involved but never really get deeply involved. But she really did.
Graham’s request was approved by the Council Secretary Nyasha Smith, and then by officials in the Office of Chief Financial Officer, records show. LL got the paperwork concerning the trip through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Newly elected D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says he’d not been aware of Graham’s trip until LL brought it to his attention. He says he’s going to make inquiries about the reasons for the publicly sponsored travel.
“There could be a justification,” Mendelson says. “I haven’t talked to anyone.”
Mendelson said that in general, “I have a concern that we in the government … need to be judicious in how we spend tax dollars. The public doesn’t support taking trips that are unrelated to official business.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery