D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has spent nearly $20,000 since 2000 for a season ticket to the Washington Wizards and bought candlestick holders at Neiman Marcus as a wedding gift for a former intern.
Harold Brazil (D-At Large) reimbursed himself more than $7,500 for lunches, dinners and unspecified expenses. And Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) provided some of their council staff with special, interest-free loans.
In each case, costs were covered by constituent services funds available to council members. Established by the council three decades ago after the inception of home rule in the District, these pools of money are largely intended to offer prompt financial assistance to needy residents for such matters as delinquent rent, overdue utility bills and burials of loved ones.
The council members raised a total of $1.2 million for their constituent services funds over the past 41/2 years through individual contributions and transfers of money left over from their campaigns, allowable under D.C. law. During that period, council members spent $943,721.67 of what they collected, records show.
For the most part, council members have used their funds in accordance with the District's regulations, which stipulate that such a program should promote residents' "general welfare, including, but not limited to, charitable, scientific, educational, medical or recreational purposes." Council members have used the funds to purchase fans for senior citizens, uniforms for youth sports teams, beads for a Latino festival and turkey baskets for Thanksgiving dinners.
But a review of quarterly fund reports filed by each of the 13 council members shows that $67,429 in expenditures submitted by nine of the council members deviate from the intent of the constituent services programs.
The District's Office of Campaign Finance has done little to regulate use of the money. The most tenuous links to constituent services are generally accepted by the agency as legitimate. Council members have used wide latitude in deciding how to spend some of their constituent money. The only prohibitions on the money state that it cannot be tapped for political or personal purposes.
"It's broad, and people who give know it's broad," said D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). "It's equivalent to an expense account on your job. We don't have an expense account. If I have to go to lunch with somebody, I have to do it through constituent services funds."
City councils in such cities as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston do not have constituent services funds for their members. Council officials there contend that it is more effective to send constituents to the appropriate municipal agencies or nonprofit groups for help. Some officials cautioned that donations to constituent programs could be construed as political in nature and criticized as inappropriate.
In the District, campaign finance officials said that the extent to which they can challenge an expenditure is limited by the permissiveness of the laws covering the funds and that auditors generally take the quarterly fund reports that are submitted to them on faith because they are sworn statements.
"We are doing what we are required to do by statute," said Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery, executive director of the campaign finance office. "We, to a certain extent, accept what is there on the face of the report because it is submitted under oath."
Evans has spent $19,749 since 2000 to purchase a Washington Wizards season ticket at MCI Center. The council member said he used the ticket once last year. Otherwise, he said, he gives the ticket to constituents.
Evans said he began buying the Wizard ticket and giving them to constituents after the Redskins moved out of the city and council members were no longer allotted football tickets. The campaign finance office has made several inquiries over the years, including one last month, seeking more information about why Evans purchases the tickets. Campaign finance officials said last week that the use is appropriate.
"We get requests all the time from Ward 2 leaders and other residents for tickets," said John Ralls, Evans's chief of staff who handles the tickets. "They also go to government employees who have been particularly helpful to the neighborhoods of Ward 2."
The candlestick holders -- purchased at Neiman Marcus for $157 in June 2000 and paid for out of Evans's fund -- were a wedding gift to a former intern who was also a constituent, Ralls said. Evans also used the fund to buy six baby shower gifts totaling $290.
In a number of cases, money from the fund has gone to individuals with close ties to the council members. Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8) used the fund to pay the fees of a contract she entered into seven years ago with her longtime companion, Bob Bethea. Since 2000, Allen has paid Bethea $2,265.30 to help her with the Martin Luther King Day Jr. parade, the Easter egg roll and a health fair in the ward.
"He has a contract with me," Allen said. "The reason he has a contract is I do not want it to look like in any way that I was giving him the money. He had to earn the money."
In Graham's ward, two of the people identified as having strong financial needs earned more than $25,000 and worked in Graham's council office.
In July 2001, Graham used his fund to give each of his two assistant directors for constituent services an interest-free "constituent loan" that they had about 31/2 months to repay, records show. Calvin Woodland Jr. received $1,144 and Ted Loza $1,140, according to fund reports, which show that both men paid the money back in a timely fashion.
And in March of last year, Graham used the constituent fund to give $1,000 in assistance to the former co-treasurer of his 2002 reelection campaign, Janie Boyd. In April of this year, the council member supplied Boyd with a $1,000 interest-free loan that has yet to be repaid.
In an interview, Graham said that Woodland, who was making $25,124 annually, and Loza, who was earning $32,302, both had "a strong need" for the extra money and were to receive end-of-the-year bonuses equal to the loan amounts.
"So it was only under that premise they got the loans as a kind of advance," Graham said, adding that the two staffers live in his ward.
Graham said that before releasing the two loans, he received an opinion from the campaign finance office stating that it was an appropriate use of his constituent fund. However, officials at the campaign finance office said they could not recall or find any record of such an opinion.
As for the payment and loan to Boyd, Graham said she is a Ward 1 constituent and that he was helping the D.C. chapter of a food program for the less fortunate, of which she is co-organizer.
Records show that Graham also reimbursed himself or various credit cards bearing his name more than $6,350 for unspecified expenses, including items only referred to in the reports as working lunches.
"If there is a problem here, it is a bookkeeping, reporting problem," Graham said, noting that his quarterly submissions are now more detailed. But, he added, "I would also say that the Office of Campaign Finance ought to have informed us if they saw a problem."
Brazil's constituent services records show that he reimbursed himself $7,517 from the fund in two large payments, mostly for meals for which he provided no details in the reports.
The first reimbursement, for $3,508, was made March 15, 2002; and the second payout, for $4,008, was dated Feb. 14th of last year.
Brazil declined to be interviewed, and the fund's treasurer, Michael C. Morgan, did not return calls seeking comment.
Brazil's campaign manager, Darden Copeland, said in an interview more than a month ago that the lunches and dinners were related to Brazil's role as chairman of the council's Economic Development Committee.
"We need to support the folks who are deciding whether to invest in the city," Copeland said. "We need to meet with these folks, and a good setting for that is dinner or lunch."
Copeland initially said he would provide copies of receipts and lists of the people Brazil entertained. He did not return subsequent calls.
Kenneth Gross, former head of enforcement for the Federal Election Commission, said council members should supply an adequate description of the expenses to allow for oversight. "The word 'reimbursement' doesn't meet that requirement," he said.
Schwartz, who chairs the council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment, gave two interest-free loans to a staffer on that panel who she said was having "some personal difficulties." In November 1999, James A. Slattery received a $600 loan from the constituent fund, and in April 2000 he was given an additional $500 loan, according to records.
Both were repaid several months later, ahead of the due dates. Slattery was being paid $28,639 when he received the two loans.
Schwartz said that providing a staffer with loans is "obviously not a normal practice." But "this was an honest effort to help someone out. He is a very valued staffer."
Cropp has reported spending $4,971 out of her fund on council breakfasts, meetings and receptions, most of which, she acknowledged, are closed to the public. Cropp said the events are a legitimate use of her constituent services money.
"We're talking about things that will impact the constituents," Cropp said.
Council members are not required to submit receipts with their quarterly fund reports. They are, however, supposed to keep receipts for at least three years in case a campaign finance auditor questions an expense.
An auditor recently sent a letter to David A. Catania (R-At Large) requesting more information about $9,095 he paid to three consultants.
Catania said in an interview that the work of these individuals enhanced services to D.C. residents. He said that one consultant, Shaun Snyder -- who collected the most signatures for him to get on the ballot in a special election in 1997 -- worked part time to help with constituent services.
Catania said that another consultant, Knell Bumbalo, helped the D.C. government implement adoption legislation and conducted research.
And the third, Peter Espenshied, assisted Catania with his duties on the regional Transportation Planning Board.
But the campaign finance agency rarely asks for such additional documentation, and a brief written response from a council member usually suffices.
Staff researchers Bobbye Pratt and Madonna Lebling and administrative assistant Kathryn Miller contributed to this report.