Bowser aides said she normally uses her fund for one-time grants to groups and doesn’t have enough money to meet the needs of nonprofits during a pandemic. Some lawmakers said they have received fewer requests for donations than usual, perhaps because community events have been curtailed and a city-imposed moratorium on evictions and utility shut-offs has reduced the urgency of paying bills.
But government watchdogs — who have long criticized the constituent service program because it allows individuals and special-interest groups to give money to politicians outside campaign season — say that there is no shortage of organizations and residents in need of financial assistance and that elected officials should be more proactive.
“People are in need of help more than they’ve probably ever been since the Great Recession hit,” said Mike Tanglis of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group that has criticized the existence of the constituent service funds. “The arguments in the past — that these are unbelievably crucial funds that we wouldn’t be able to survive without — don’t hold water anymore.”
D.C. politicians are allowed to operate constituent service accounts, funded by private donors and leftover campaign cash, for expenses such as burial assistance, utility bills and grants to nonprofits. But the rules on governing spending are not strict, enabling elected officials also to spend the money on expenses such as T-shirts bearing their names.
An investigation by Public Citizen concluded that the vast majority of spending between 2012 and 2018 did not benefit “immediate constituent needs.” But regulators have deemed only two expenses inappropriate in recent years: a $500 donation in 2018 by council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) to a controversial Nation of Islam summit in Chicago, and the use by then-council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) of constituent funds to pay for campaign robocalls in 2008.
Six council members do not maintain constituent service funds, citing the concerns from watchdog groups. They are Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
Other politicians often send their leftover campaign money to their constituent service accounts, which is why the mayor and council chairman have so much money available. Bowser transferred $200,000 from her 2019 inauguration fund, which was financed by private donations, and Mendelson shifted $133,000 from his 2018 reelection campaign.
Since taking office in 2015, Bowser has used her fund to distribute more than $100,000 to civic and community groups, such as the Woodland Tigers youth football team and the Anacostia Coordinating Council. But the report filed Friday lists no disbursements in 2020 except for bank fees.
Thorn Pozen, a lobbyist who chairs the mayor’s constituent services program, declined to comment on the spending. The mayor’s communications office said in a statement that the fund is normally used to help with “one-time needs” such as field trips and uniforms.
“Obviously in 2020, the needs of most local nonprofits are much greater than what this fund can support,” the statement says. “Therefore, the District has focused on finding much more substantial relief funds, such as the $4 million that was provided to 77 nonprofit organizations through the DC HOPE Grants.”
At a Monday news conference, Bowser said she and the staff managing her constituent fund are responding to requests for financial help “through our regular budgeting process and the covid emergency budgeting process.”
Mendelson has been one of the biggest spenders of constituent services funds — disbursing $150,000 for power bills, Christmas toy drives, neighborhood groups and more since 2013. He also spent $7,000 on holiday greeting cards and $500 on council T-shirts.
The council chairman said that he has written several checks to constituents this year that have not yet cleared and that he eventually will report several thousand dollars’ worth of expenditures. But he also said that he has fielded fewer requests for help this year and that he did not think it was appropriate for him to proactively offer up the money to individuals or groups that may be hurting.
“I don’t just go out and wave the checkbook and say, ‘Hey, everyone, I’m writing checks, you want a check?’ ” he said.
Mendelson said residents should feel comfortable calling his office for assistance as bills pile up, even if they don’t face an immediate eviction or utility shut-off. “I’m here to help if somebody needs help,” he said.
One politician did distribute significant funding to groups hit hard by the pandemic: former Ward 2 council member Jack Evans (D), who resigned amid an ethics scandal in January and lost a comeback bid in June.
Evans was criticized in past years for using constituent money to buy tickets to sporting events, pay annual dues for organizations and cover a personal parking ticket in Arlington. This year, he donated the $119,000 remaining in his account to a broad range of nonprofit and local organizations. Most of the money went to local arts institutions, including $20,000 each to Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Ford’s Theatre.
“During these difficult times in the pandemic, arts organizations are really struggling and so I wanted to make sure we were able to give generously to many of the arts organizations that I’ve supported over the years,” Evans said.
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) has spent the most of any sitting elected official since the pandemic started: $3,300, including $2,000 to support a rent relief program for residents living east of the Anacostia River.
Bonds said she originally intended to spread out disbursements of her remaining $14,000 through the end of her term in 2022. But she said she has been hearing stories of children in need during the pandemic and now is considering raising money for the fund so she can to send more to charities.
“If I were to get that kind of money, you can be rest assured we would be helping these kids, these families that are suffering,” she said.
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has the second biggest fund among rank-and-file lawmakers, with about $12,000 in her account. She spent about $1,500 this year, including payments for two water bills and cupcakes for a 9/11 memorial event.
She said the reason she hasn’t spent more is simple: Few in her wealthy ward are asking for help. “If I get some requests for use of the funds, then I will act on it,” Cheh said. “But I’m not just looking around for any reason to spend money.”
Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who represents a higher-poverty part of the city, listed $250 in burial assistance as this year’s sole disbursement from his fund, which had $7,600 in it as of Oct. 1.
His chief of staff, Sheila Bunn, said constituents usually come for help when they receive an eviction or utility shut-off notice — which isn’t allowed during the public health emergency. Others in dire financial situations need far more than the fund can provide, Bunn said, so the office refers them to charities that have more money available.
“We don’t necessarily like piecemealing assistance for people if we can connect you with another resource that takes care of your situation in totality,” she said.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), whose district also has pockets of poverty, had spent most of his $4,000 fund before the pandemic and has $500 left in his account.
Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) has spent more than $1,300 since March on unspecified supplies, and has about $1,000 remaining. Neither he nor his chief of staff returned requests for comment.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, said the group unsuccessfully pushed for the abolition of constituent services funds during an overhaul of city ethics laws in 2013. But lawmakers resisted.
“They are really set up because they allow wealthy corporate interests to throw more money at the feet of D.C. officials, and those funds are then used almost openly for self-promotion purposes,” Holman said. “It’s really a whole sham.”
Perry Stein contributed to this report.