Republicans fault D.C. Council members over use of constituent funds

In what could be violations of campaign finance rules, more than half of the D.C. Council has used constituent services funds to make donations to or purchase items from local Democratic organizations, according to an analysis released Thursday by the D.C. Republican Committee.

The GOP report, which comes as council members are under growing scrutiny over their use of the privately raised money, concluded that 10 of 13 council members have used the funds to issue checks to Democratic groups.

“Everyone does better, and the city does better, when the rules are followed and constituent services funds are used for the most vulnerable residents,” said Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee. “Giving money from constituent services funds to Democratic organizations does nothing but help keep incumbents elected.”

But several council members quickly questioned the motives of the inquiry and the credibility of the findings, which focus on about $5,400 in expenditures by 10 council members over several years. They decried the GOP effort as a cheap and misleading political stunt from a party struggling to remain relevant in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

“This is evidently all the GOP has, since it has an absence of qualified candidates who can get elected,” said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a former Republican who left the party in 2004. “So it resorts to backbiting. It’s not a strategy. It’s just entertaining.”

Under District law and political custom, council members and the mayor can raise as much as $80,000 a year from private donors for the fund to help residents’ “general welfare,” including helping constituents with unpaid bills and giving gifts to charitable and civic organizations.

Elected officials are generally given wide latitude to spend the money as they see fit, but the law prohibits its use for political purposes and campaigns.

The GOP findings could fuel debate over whether more restrictions should be placed on how council members can spend the fund.

A Washington Post review recently found that over the past decade, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) spent $135,897 — about 31 percent of his total spending during the period — on tickets to professional sporting events. Evans said he gives most of the tickets to constituents.

The Office of Campaign Finance recently fined council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) for using money from her fund to make robo-calls. Alexander, who was cleared of using the money for personal benefit, is appealing the fine.

According to the GOP’s review of Office of Campaign Finance records, the 10 council members have used their funds to give a total of $5,405 to Democratic organizations since 2004. The biggest beneficiary was the Ward 7 Democratic Committee, which received $1,580. The Ward 8 Democratic Committee received $1,275.

Checks from members’ constituent services funds were also sent in recent years to the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, several Democratic women’s clubs and the Ward 3 Democratic Committee.

Robert Kabel, chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee, is demanding that the Board of Elections and Ethics launch an investigation.

D.C. residents “deserve to have public officials who obey the law and we encourage your office to enforce the consequences,” Kabel wrote to the elections board.

But in compiling its data, the GOP appears to have made at least one major error. It stated that council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) used her fund to give the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club $50 in June. It also identified her as making a $500 donation to the Ward 3 Democratic Committee in 2007.

In a scathing response to the GOP, Cheh noted that the Gertrude Stein club refunded the donation after she alerted the club that the donation was made in error. She also noted that the 2007 donation was made by her council predecessor, Kathy Patterson.

“These people are just reckless and irresponsible,” Cheh said in an interview. “They just want to fling mud and get everyone messed up.”

Catania, who is alleged to have given a total of $520 to four Democratic groups, also strongly pushed back at his former party.

He noted that the donations were for tickets to Democratic charitable causes, including an annual Ward 7 Democratic Committee dinner to raise money to send needy teenagers to college.

“If there were a Ward 7 Republican Party, I would have probably given to them, too,” Catania said. “But there doesn’t appear to be any Republican Party in the District outside of Georgetown.”

Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who the GOP said made $650 in donations to Democratic groups, said the Office of Campaign Finance needs to clarify what is considered a political expense.

“I don’t care what the GOP thinks, only what the [elections] board thinks, since it has probably been going on for decades,” he said.

But even council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a longtime proponent of the constituent services funds, appears ready to debate whether the law governing the funds should be changed.

“If some council members want to change it, they ought to change it,” Barry said. “I haven’t raised that much money this year anyway.”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.

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