Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks. Billy Joel. Those are some of the celebs the health department wanted for a taxpayer-funded ad campaign to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus. Instead, they got Dennis Quaid and some lesser-known musicians.
“These guys should be handing out food and instead they’re talking to campaign attorneys because of these damn letters,” said Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting firm, and a longtime player in Democratic politics.”It’s a brazen attempt at vote buying targeted at the neediest.”
Food banks in several parts of the country said they have consulted lawyers to make sure they aren’t jeopardizing their nonprofit tax status, or violating any election laws.
In Ohio, food bank leaders sought legal counsel after a member of the National Guard who was helping hand out the food boxes raised questions about whether they could be inadvertently violating the Hatch Act.
In a legal memo shared with POLITICO, law firm Reminger determined that the letters do not violate the law because they don’t explicitly mention the election and the letter is not “directed towards the success or failure of a political party, candidate for political office or partisan political group.”
Some food banks have advised the food pantries and nonprofits in their network that they can open the boxes one by one and take out the letter from the president if they want to and have the staff to do so.
“We are a nonpartisan organization,” said Greg Trotter, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “While the content of the letter is not overtly political, we think it’s inappropriate to include a letter from any political candidate just weeks from an election.”
In Oregon, a major food bank recently decided to stop participating in the program, in part because of the letters. The CEO of the organization, Susannah Morgan, wrote in a statement that “there are real questions as to whether food assistance organizations can ethically distribute such a message with an election looming in mere weeks.”
The Agriculture Department did not respond to questions about why the letters were previously not required, but now are.
In response to POLITICO’s questions, a spokesperson for USDA said Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease official at the National Institutes of Health, supports the letters as a messaging tool.
“In addition to benefiting from fresh produce, dairy and meat products, Americans in need also are receiving essential information about how to 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 cover when around others, and washing your hands often,” Fauci said, in a statement provided by USDA.
The single-page letter included in the boxes, however, is less specific, telling people to wash their hands, protect the elderly and vulnerable, and stay home if they feel sick. The letter only says to “consider” wearing a face covering in public, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly recommends doing so.
The USDA also shared a statement from Ivanka Trump, who has been a public ambassador for the program.
On the south side of Chicago, in a predominantly Black neighborhood that has been hard hit by Covid-19, the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation has been handing out USDA food boxes every week since mid-May, when the program began. This week was the first time the president’s letters started showing up in the boxes, which are handed out in the parking lot of a Save-A-Lot grocery store that shut down in February, just weeks before coronavirus began wreaking havoc on the economy, said Carlos Nelson, the CEO of the nonprofit.
“It’s really shocking,” Nelson said, noting that the letters put his organization in an uncomfortable position because the group is required to remain apolitical to maintain its nonprofit tax status. “It seems like it’s being politicized.”
On Tuesday, during their weekly distribution event, one long-time volunteer walked off and refused to participate once she realized the packages contained letters from Trump, expressing worry that people may think the boxes were essentially trying to sway votes, Nelson said. Others opened up the boxes and began removing the letters before handing them out to individuals who arrived at the event on foot, though the vast majority were not removed before being handed out.
Some people receiving the boxes pitched the letters out their car windows, Nelson said, leaving them on the ground. “Thankfully we’ve got a litter abatement team here,” he said.