Op-Ed: The Trouble With Reva’s Receipts

by | Oct 29, 2020 | OPINION

In the face of allegations of impropriety from both the mayor’s office and her 2020 election opponent, David Dominique writes that Councilmember Reva Trammell may be taking desperate measures to save her political career.

Last week, Richmond City Councilmember Reva Trammell’s campaign allegedly weaponized information extracted from one of my Instagram posts. While I continue to call for transparency in campaign financing, I disavow Councilmember Trammell’s deceptive attack on her opponent, Amy Wentz.

As a sitting Councilmember who has herself allegedly engaged in ethical improprieties in 2020, Ms. Trammell is sitting inside the most fragile of glass houses; she might avoid throwing stones.

During this election cycle alone, Ms. Trammell has accepted multiple eyebrow-raising donations, in addition to allegedly distributing cash-equivalent gift cards to political supporters and surrogates, in what her opponent considers thinly-veiled bribes.

According to Wentz, Trammell justifies these unregulated, unsupervised distributions of gift cards by labelling them “constituent services.” While Wentz points out that distribution of resources is not inherently suspicious, the issues raised by these activities are many.

A review of Virginia Public Access Project records showed that Trammell has not reported these gift cards as cash or in-kind donations, nor has she reported their distribution. If the cards are political gifts, the law requires Ms. Trammell disclose the donors and ultimate recipients. If they are public distributions being made by an elected official, how are they funded, who else in city hall is privy to the details, what accounting is being done, and what oversight has occurred? If the cards are private gifts, why are they being sent with a note on Richmond City Council letterhead, a municipal resource intended for communication of official government business?

In images obtained by the author, Trammell’s selective gift-giving explicitly invoked her position on Council, and seemed to imply her wish for professional collaboration with the recipient. In a note printed on Richmond City Council letterhead, and sent with a gift card, Trammell wrote “I look forward to working with you in the future…,” an implicit acknowledgment of her political position and activities. 

Photo via David Dominique

Trammell appears to be using civic resources — City Council letterhead as well as printing services — to distribute a personal gift that primarily serves her relationship interests and has no connection to government business. According to Wentz, there is no process for constituents in the 8th District to apply for such gifts, and many constituents are not aware of them. How is Trammell deciding which constituents receive these gifts? Equally important, who is funding the gift cards? 

Though Wentz does not have access to records, through conversations with those privy to the practice, Wentz estimates that Trammell may be distributing $10,000 to $16,000 in gift cards per year to approximately six hundred constituents who serve as Trammell’s political “surrogates.” 

For Ms. Trammell, leveraging the power of her elected office to serve her political interests may be a pattern. 

Earlier this year, Mayor Stoney’s Press Secretary, James Nolan, called Ms. Trammell’s advocacy in support of at least one group of her political donors “wholly inappropriate.” 

In a story widely reported in local media, on February 24, 2020 Ms. Trammell used her City Council seat to call for the FBI to investigate multiple departments in City Hall on behalf of one of her top donors, Coalson Enterprises. In comments presented to Council, Trammell alleged that Coalson was receiving unfair treatment in its application for a permit in the 8th District. However, according to Wentz and a neighbor whose property abuts the Coalson project in question, Coalson’s issues were self-inflicted by their failure to obtain proper permitting and the damage they caused to the neighbor’s property. 

Photo via David Dominique

More troublingly, Coalson’s issues with the city were solved during a period when Ms.Trammell applied significant legal and political pressure to city departments on Coalson’s behalf, while Ms. Trammell simultaneously received thousands of dollars in donations from both Coalson Enterprises and an individual Coalson family member.

In 2019 and 2020, the Coalsons only donated to one politician, Reva Trammell, and became her top donors by a significant margin, making at least six donations totalling $13,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. For reference, Trammell’s next-largest donor has been the Homebuilders Association of Richmond, a well-funded construction industry bundler that has donated Trammell less than half the funds donated by the Coalsons.

According to Wentz, Trammell’s privileged handling of Coalson’s affairs has not resulted in a positive relationship between the developer and the community. In one 8th District meeting, owner Jackie Coalson allegedly threatened to turn the unpermitted property into a landfill if the community did not help him in his quest to obtain permits. Mr. Coalson also allegedly mentioned that he would be creating a park and naming it for Ms. Trammell, a not-so-subtle reciprocation for Ms. Trammell’s efforts in her role on Council, efforts which came amid Coalson’s significant donations to her campaign.

Reva Trammell’s hypocrisy in criticizing Amy Wentz’s fundraising is self-evident. Ms. Trammell’s behavior on City Council is cause for censure by that body, and perhaps cause for an investigation into whether she has improperly leveraged her Council position to make serious legal threats on behalf of her top donor. Similarly, her distribution of gift cards, funded by unknown sources, requires serious inquiry. 

This Tuesday, voters in the 8th District will have the opportunity to decide whether Reva Trammell’s priority is serving her constituents, or serving the interests of developers and other big donors who have funded her political career. 

Richmond deserves fairness and transparency in its politics. 

Richmond deserves a new council. 

Reva Trammell and Coalson Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment for this editorial.

Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect editorial policy.

Top Photo via Reva Trammell/Facebook

David Dominique

David Dominique

David Dominique is a composer and performer living in Richmond. Currently Assistant Professor of Music at William & Mary, much of Dominique’s recent music has been written for a jazz octet, including the albums Mask (2018) and Ritual (2013). Dominique has also composed numerous contemporary chamber pieces and theater works. For his return appearance at the ICA, Dominique will improvise solo, using his voice, electronics and a loop pedal to create an emotionally-infused soundscape built from whispers, chants, vocal harmony, and a selection of the texts and themes that have informed Rashid Johnson’s “Monument”.

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