FLIP THROUGH the expenditures of the constituent services funds of D.C. Council members, and you’ll find precious few payments to actual constituents. Common uses include buying program ads or tickets to community group events; frequently money goes to caterers and to consultants. The purpose is not, as suggested by the name, to help out the resident unable to meet the mortgage or pay a utility bill but rather to help make public officials look good. These funds should be eliminated.
That council members have wide latitude in how they can use the $80,000 funds — the only prohibitions are for overt political or personal benefit — was underscored in the Office of Campaign Finance’s investigation of Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). Last week, officials released a decision that cleared Ms. Alexander of the most serious charges of misuse. It gave a seal of approval to her purchasing tables at fundraising events, buying advertising in program books and catering state-of-the-ward meetings, activities that, in most places, are seen for what they are — political gestures. The office did fault Ms. Alexander for failing to report certain expenditures and for using $300 in constituent funds to pay a firm to make robo-calls. Even then, Ms. Alexander plans to appeal the $4,000 fine since, she says, the calls were promoting a community event.
In essence, the funds, which have become entrenched in D.C. politics, are second campaign accounts that can be used with broad discretion. That the contributors are the very same entities that underwrite the city’s election campaigns — those seeking access and city business — further compounds the problem. We’re not suggesting that officials be barred from taking out an ad in a community newsletter or hosting a block party or buying tickets to a garden tour — only that they not do so under the guise of helping out their constituents but instead use appropriate political funds. Council members who say that ethics reform will be a priority after the summer recess would do well to start with an examination of these pernicious accounts.