Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is mad. Washington Post reporters have recently taken to using the word “bribe” when describing $2,600 in cash Graham’s former chief of staff tried to give Graham on behalf of an undercover FBI agent.

Graham says in a WaPo op-ed that it was nothing of the sort, and refers us to the legal definition of “bribe,” which is “the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties.”

Graham says he never thought the money being thrown his way in the summer of 2009 on behalf of a businessman known as “Pete” (the FBI undercover agent) had anything to do with Graham’s official duties. Therefore, he wasn’t offered a bribe. “It never entered my mind that I would do or had done anything on behalf of the person who provided the funds,” Graham writes.

Think about that line for a second. Graham is essentially saying that he believed some businessman was trying to give him $2,600 out of the kindness of his heart.

That’s hard to believe, especially since court records show that Pete was introduced to Graham by way of Abdul Kamus, an Ethiopian cab driver advocate who was pushing Graham to introduce a taxi-medallion bill (a bill Graham introduced but later withdrew after his chief of staff, Ted Loza, was arrested). Pete, who told Loza back in the summer of 2008 that he was looking to get a piece of the District’s taxi market, gave the money to Kamus, who gave it to Loza to give to Graham.

Court records show that Graham met with Kamus and Pete on at least two occasions before the $2,600 gift was attempted.  Those records show that Kamus also regularly met with Graham to discuss taxi-related legislation. In other words, the attempted gift came to Graham by way of a man he knew was interested in shaping the city’s policy towards taxicabs. (Graham was then head of the committee that oversaw taxi-related issues.)

It would be nice to know what Graham and Pete specifically talked about at their meetings, but Graham has so far refused to answer LL’s questions regarding this whole affair. But maybe Pete used the same line on Graham as he did during his first meeting with Loza (a meeting that ended with Loza accepting $4,000 for a trip to Ethiopia). “It’s always good to spread a little goodwill when you’re investing in a city,” said Pete, according to a secretly recorded video.

Spreading goodwill, of course, is not technically the same thing as a bribe. When LL was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, a country where bribes were necessary just to get around the country, no one ever used the word “bribe.” Instead, the favorite euphemism was giving a “little gift.”

Is there really a difference between spreading goodwill through little gifts and a “bribe?” Legally, sure. And Graham has a point that the play-it-straight-Post ought to be more careful in its word choice. But semantics aside, are we supposed to believe that Graham, who clerked for a Supreme Court justice, is so dense that he wouldn’t understand what Pete’s possible ulterior motives were?

Graham needs you to believe that fiction so that he can explain away his failure to report the attempted gift to authorities—a failure that might not technically be illegal, but sure is disappointing. “In my mind, it seemed as if there had been some misunderstanding by the individual who provided the money — perhaps a lack of knowledge about protocol and how official and unofficial business is conducted,” Graham writes. “Nothing that occurred that day appeared to me to be an effort to influence me or any legislation.”

Again, that’s another tough line to swallow. Earlier this year, Graham said he felt like the envelop full of cash was “radioactive.” And Loza, when he returned the money shortly after Graham rejected it, call the attempted gift “illegal.” But now the gift was just “some misunderstanding?”

You would have to give LL an awfully big “little gift” to get him to believe that one.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery