D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander improperly used her constituent services fund to pay for political robo-calls, but she did not benefit personally from money that she raised to help needy Ward 7 residents, according to an audit released Wednesday by the Office of Campaign Finance.
The audit, the latest in a string of inquiries into the conduct of District leaders, looked at whether Alexander (D) commingled campaign and constituent services funds and improperly leased office space from a high-profile developer who had business before the city.
The inquiry refocused attention on money raised by council members for constituent services funds, which are intended to help residents seeking immediate aid.
The campaign finance office cleared Alexander of the most-serious allegations leveled by political opponents, including Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten and Ward 7 activist Geraldine Washington.
The report concluded that Alexander had largely collected and spent constituent services funds for the intended purpose, helping at-risk residents in economically depressed Ward 7. It also stated that Alexander broke no laws when she operated constituent services and her 2008 reelection campaign out of the same office.
The office is owned by businessman H.R. Crawford, a developer with long-standing ties to many District leaders. But the audit did not find that Alexander did anything improper in renting office space from Crawford or that she received a preferential rental rate.
“It’s a relief for me,” Alexander said after the audit was released. “It gives me relief that I no longer have to explain I did nothing wrong.”
According to the report, Alexander’s constituent services fund is “well organized and coordinated.” But auditors recommended that the Board of Elections and Ethics fine Alexander’s campaign committee $4,000 for violating two campaign finance rules.
According to the audit, Alexander failed to report 19 expenditures from her constituent services fund, which council members have generally used to help poor residents pay rent, utility bills, funeral costs or other such expenses. The expenditures, totaling $4,700, were made from October 2007 to July 2009 and did not show up in the quarterly reports that council members are required to file with the campaign finance office.
The unreported expenditures were discovered in a review of canceled checks drawn on Alexander’s constituent services fund. Alexander has said she will file an amended report outlining how the money was spent.
The audit report also contends that campaign finance rules were violated when the fund issued a $300 check for automated phone calls, or robo-calls, to the Parker Group, an Alabama firm that specializes in “political teleservices.”
“This was a prohibited expenditure due to its political nature as opposed to an expenditure made to benefit the citizens of Ward 7 or promote their general welfare,” the report states.
But Alexander, first elected in 2007, plans to appeal that finding. She said the robo-calls were made to invite constituents to a Ward 7 Appreciation Day.
“It was a community day for the kids,” Alexander said. “Food, entertainment, and it was really nice.”
The Washington Times published a series of articles this year that raised questions about whether Alexander was using the fund to pay for office expenses, catering and flowers instead of to help the needy.
After a six-month investigation, auditors concluded that the vast majority of Alexander’s expenditures were made for acceptable purposes. About money spent on catering, the auditors accepted her explanation that it’s normal for D.C. Council members to offer a meal at community events, leadership meetings and state of the ward addresses.
As for the office rental, the audit found that Alexander paid Crawford fair-market value. She paid $950 a month when the space was used solely as a constituent services office, and she paid $1,250 a month during the 2008 campaign.
Although it is rare for constituent services and campaign offices to be in the same location, the audit report noted that office space is limited in Ward 7.
The auditors also concluded that city resources were not diverted to campaign activities and that neither Alexander nor Crawford stood to benefit from the arrangement.