The “vast majority” of dollars raised through private donations by D.C. elected officials to help District residents are not spent as intended, according to a new report by Public Citizen, a government watchdog organization.
District law allows elected officials to accept donations to help residents with certain expenses or services, such as an overdue electric bill, the burial of a loved one or a turkey at Thanksgiving.
But these accounts, known as constituent services funds, rarely end up helping residents with urgent needs and are occasionally used by politicians to promote themselves, the new analysis says.
The study found just a quarter of the $1.1 million expenditures from constituent services funds between 2012 and 2018 went to expenses considered “immediate constituent needs.”
More than half of the spending went to fundraisers, catering and refreshments, sports tickets and advertising, Public Citizen found. And some D.C. Council members used the funds to pay for banners, T-shirts and advertisements resembling campaign materials.
Constituent services funds have long been controversial in the District. Critics call them slush funds and a way for donors and lobbyists to curry favor with elected officials.
Eight of the D.C. Council’s 13 members and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) maintain constituent services funds.
Five council members refuse to maintain them. 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) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has the fattest fund by far, even though his constituents have a median income of $104,504 — the second-highest of any ward in the city. He had $143,152 available in his account at the start of the year.
He has famously used his funds to buy seasonal sports tickets, which he says he sometimes gives away to residents or school auctions.
Evans spent $162,816 on sports tickets between 2012 and 2018, more than half of his total constituent services spending in the period reviewed by Public Citizen.
Campaign finance law says constituent services spending “shall be expended only for an activity, service, or program which provides emergency, informational, charitable, scientific, educational, medical, or recreational services to the residents of the District of Columbia and which expenditure accrues to the primary benefit of residents of the District of Columbia.”
City regulators routinely ask lawmakers to explain how spending benefits constituents but have rarely penalized them for inappropriate disbursements, according to records obtained by Public Citizen and The Washington Post.
When Evans spent $1,454 on “Mardi Gras Supplies” in 2014, Schannette Grant, an aide to Evans who serves as the treasurer of his constituent services fund, told regulators they were party beads for the annual gay pride parade that draws “a meaningful number of Ward 2 constituents.”
Evans, the city’s longest-serving lawmaker, also used his constituent services fund in 2015 to reimburse himself for a $50 parking ticket in Arlington, according to records provided to campaign finance regulators obtained by The Post.
Grant told The Post that the parking ticket was an allowable expense because he was on official business at a dinner of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
When auditors asked about a $575.88 subscription to the National Law Journal in 2016, Grant said it featured “news applicable to many of the law firms that are based in Ward 2.”
Former lawmaker Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) was fined in 2011 for using constituent funds for political purposes — campaign robo-calls. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) was forced to pay back $500 to his constituent account last year after donating to a Nation of Islam convention in Chicago where Louis Farrakhan made a series of anti-Semitic comments.
In 2016, Evans spearheaded an effort that raised the limit on the amount that could be spent from $40,000 to $60,000 — as a budget change without public hearings, as first reported by Washington City Paper.
Evans is also a lawyer whose private business dealings are the subject of an ongoing federal investigation.
In a letter to Public Citizen, the Office of Campaign Finance defended how it regulates constituent services funds.
“The conduct of random periodic audits ensures that reporting entities understand the reporting requirements of the Campaign Finance Act; enables OCF to identify apparent violations or question transactions, and require compliance where necessary; promotes future compliance; and provides transparency to the financial operations of the audited entity,” the agency wrote earlier this month.
Regulators could only point to one instance in recent years where they determined a constituent services expenditure was inappropriate: White’s donation to the Nation of Islam, the subject of a high-profile local controversy.
Public Citizen identified instances where constituent services spending seemed like campaign spending.
For example, Evans placed a campaign ad in a 2016 Capital Pride Parade guide that featured a photo of him marching in the parade. The same ad appeared again in the 2018 guide; only this time it was paid for by constituent services dollars and a campaign logo was swapped out for Evans’s signature.
Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) spent hundreds of dollars on T-shirts bearing their names. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) also reported expenditures on Mendelson T-shirts and buttons for parades.
The largest constituent services expenditure reported by council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) was $12,113 for “design and printing services” in 2016 by the same firm that made campaign materials for his reelection campaign that year. Aides to Todd told Public Citizen that the spending was for a Ward 4 progress report to constituents.
The Public Citizen report also said that many dollars from constituent services accounts are spent in accordance with the law, such as turkey giveaways and holiday coat and toy drives.
Gray spent the largest portion of his fund — 72 percent — on “immediate constituent needs” from 2012 through 2018, Public Citizen found. He was followed by Mendelson, who spent 43 percent on immediate constituent needs. At the other end was Evans, who spent just 3 percent of his funds on residents’ urgent needs, the report found.
“It’s true that tens of thousands of dollars has been spent on goods and services for District residents that very few people would find objectionable, including rental assistance and help with utility payments,” the Public Citizen report says. “The problem is the vast majority of the expenditures are not on these things.”