Kwame R. Brown (D), the D.C. Council chairman, recently asked for his thoughts on how constituent services funds should be used, ticked off a list that included funeral services, grandmothers about to be evicted and schoolchildren in need of book bags. Nowhere on his list, as enumerated to The Post’s Mike DeBonis, were consultants for council members’ political activities, water for council members’ offices, reimbursements for council members’ travel or contributions to council members’ political allies. Yet such expenditures routinely show up in accounting for the funds, far outnumbering the occasional payment to help a resident in distress. Which just bolsters the case for eliminating these slush funds altogether.
Council members are each permitted to raise $80,000 from private contributors for their constituent funds, separate from their campaign fundraising. The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance recently fined Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) for using money from her fund to make robo-calls. She’s appealing because she says the calls were promoting a community event. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has come under some criticism for using money from his fund to purchase tickets to sporting events. Mr. Evans has been buying tickets and giving them to constituents for use in school auctions or for general distribution since 1996.
The law gives officials wide latitude in how they use this money. There is a prohibition against use for overt political or personal benefit, but it’s evident that much of the money has been going to pay for activities that are essentially political: buying ads in community programs, providing free food at community meetings, sending out promotional material. Don’t you think that anyone who got to see a Washington Capitals game courtesy of Mr. Evans would remember him come election time? And many of the contributions are overtly political, going to organizations such as the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the Ward 8 Democrats or the Ward 7 Democrats. The open admission of such gifts suggests how lax the oversight has been.
An occasional payment to a funeral home or a delinquent utility bill payment shows up on members’ disclosure forms. But those are outnumbered by payments to council staffers, caterers and consultants. And, as several council members conceded to us, they often are better able to help constituents in need by connecting them to an appropriate city agency or nonprofit organization than by giving them a handout. No doubt council members — who pretty much view this money as their own — will resist any change. But with Mr. Brown pledging at least to reform the system, it’s time to stop pretending that widows and orphans are the ones whose interests are at stake.