Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks. Billy Joel. These are some of the celebs the health department wanted for a taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to help defeat coronavirus desperation. Instead they got Dennis Quaid and some lesser known musicians.
“These people should be handing out food and instead talk to campaign lawyers about those damned letters,” said Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy advisory firm and longtime actor in democratic politics. “It is a brazen attempt to buy votes for those most in need.”
Food banks in several parts of the country said they had consulted lawyers to ensure they weren’t jeopardizing their charitable tax status or violating electoral laws.
In Ohio, food bank leaders sought legal counsel after a member of the National Guard who helped distribute the grocery boxes raised questions about whether they might inadvertently break the Hatch Act.
In a legal memo shared with POLITICO, the Reminger law firm stated that the letters did not break the law because they did not specifically mention the election and the letter was not “directed to the success or failure of a political party in favor of political office.” candidate or party political group. “
Some food banks have told pantries and nonprofits in their network that they can open the boxes one at a time and take out the president’s letter if they wish and have the staff to do so.
“We’re a non-partisan organization,” said Greg Trotter, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “Although the content of the letter is not overtly political, we consider it inappropriate to include a letter from a political candidate just a few weeks after an election.”
A major grocery bank in Oregon recently decided stop participating in the program, partly because of the letters. The organization’s executive director, Susannah Morgan, wrote in a statement: “There are real questions about whether nutrition organizations can ethically get such a message across with elections coming up in just a few weeks.”
The Department of Agriculture did not answer questions about why the letters weren’t needed before but are now.
Answering POLITICO’s questions, a USDA spokesman, Anthony Fauci, the senior infectious disease officer at the National Institutes of Health, said he supported the letters as a messaging tool.
“Americans in need not only benefit from fresh produce, dairy products and meat products, but they also receive important information about how they can protect themselves and others from COVID-19. These measures include avoiding crowds, maintaining physical distance (6 feet), covering your mouth and nose with a cloth face covering near others, and washing your hands frequently, “Fauci said in a statement from the USDA.
However, the one-sided letter in the boxes is less specific and encourages people to wash their hands, protect the elderly and vulnerable, and stay home when they feel sick. The letter only states that face covering should be worn in public, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommend it.
The USDA also shared a statement from Ivanka Trump a public ambassador for the program.
On the south side of Chicago, in a largely black neighborhood that has been badly hit by Covid-19, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation has been handing out USDA grocery boxes every week since the program began in mid-May. This week marked the first time the president’s letters appeared in boxes distributed in the parking lot of a Save-A-Lot grocery store that closed in February, just weeks before the coronavirus hit the economy. said Carlos Nelson, the nonprofit’s CEO.
“It’s really shocking,” said Nelson, noting that the letters put his organization in an awkward position because the group needs to remain apolitical to maintain its charitable tax status. “It seems like it is being politicized.”
On Tuesday, during her weekly distribution event, a longtime volunteer walked away and refused to attend when she realized the packages contained letters from Trump and expressed concern that people might believe the boxes were essentially trying to influence the votes, Nelson said. Others opened the boxes and began removing the letters before distributing them to people who came to the event on foot, although the vast majority were not removed before they were handed out.
Some people who received the boxes threw the letters out of their car windows, Nelson said, and left them on the floor. “Fortunately, we have a waste disposal team here,” he said.