Misused, Inequitable and Ethically Fraught
By Mike Tanglis
Public Citizen examined more than 3,800 CSF itemized expenditures and close to $1.1 million in spending from January 2012 through December 2018. Elected officials categorize the same types of purchases in different ways – sometimes writing just one word, other times writing a short sentence. To make comparisons, Public Citizen coded the expenditures using 14 different categories. Many of the categorizations used by Public Citizen map closely with what elected officials listed on their disclosures. Further details about how Public Citizen categorized CSF expenditures appear in Appendix I.
Public Citizen analyzed constituent service fund data from 2012 through 2018 and found:
Only About a Quarter of CSF Money was Spent on Immediate Constituent Needs & Gifts
Overall, just 13 percent of the expenditures were for utility payments, rental assistance, funeral support and flowers, and other constituent assistance. Public Citizen defined the foregoing as “immediate constituent needs.” Other expenditures that plausibly fit in the broad category of assisting constituents with unmet needs are gift cards and other gifts (coats, turkeys, toys, etc.). If one combines the necessity-based expenditure categories described above – immediate constituent needs plus gift cards and other gifts – the total spending on plausible constituent needs still would only account for 24 percent of all the spending.
Councilmember Vincent Gray spent 72 percent of his constituent service funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and other gifts, the most of any elected official in this analysis. Gray is followed by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who spent 43 percent of the constituent service funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and gifts. At the other end of the spectrum, Council member Evans spent just 3 percent of his constituent service funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and other gifts from 2012 through 2018.
The vast majority of constituent service expenditures were on donations (which includes fundraisers, sponsorships and dues), catering and refreshments, professional sports tickets, community events, or advertising and outreach.
- Evans spent $162,816 on professional sports tickets – amounting to 52 percent of all the money spent from his constituent service fund over the total period studied. Evans spent more on professional sports tickets in 2018 ($26,400) than every other D.C. elected official individually spent in total constituent service funds in 2018. Evans spent more on just Washington Wizards tickets in 2018 ($11,050) than Vincent Gray, Trayon White, Anita Bonds and Mary Cheh each spent on all constituent services in 2018.
- D.C. elected officials reported spending $100,679 on various advertising and outreach (based on PublicCitizen’s analysis). This total includes thousands of dollars spent on holiday cards, t-shirts, banners and print advertising. Many of these expenditures did far more to publicize the elected officials than to assist their constituents.
- Vincent Gray and Phil Mendelson purchased large banners that dedicated the vast majority of space to their names. Mary Cheh, Gray and Mendelson all used constituent service funds to buy t-shirts that do not appear to be much different than campaign t-shirts.
D.C. elected officials also spent tens of thousands of dollars helping their constituents, but these expenditures only accounted for about a quarter of the constituent service expenditures from 2012 through 2018. Phil Mendelson spent tens of thousands of dollars on rental and utility assistance. Muriel Bowser gave away hundreds of coats. Brandon Todd has done the same. Vincent Gray and Trayon White have given away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys. Kenyan McDuffie and Bowser have given away thousands of dollars’ worthof grocery store gift cards. And Mendelson, Gray, Mary Cheh and others have given away Christmas toys.
CSF Money is Not Distributed Equitably; More Money is Spent in Higher Income Wards
D.C.’s Ward 8 has the lowest median household income, the highest unemployment rate, and the largest share of families in poverty. But Councilmember Trayon White, who represents Ward 8, spends approximately $32,000 less in constituent service funds each year than Councilmember Jack Evans, who represents a wardwith a median income more than triple that of White’s Ward 8.
- On average, Jack Evans annually spends three and a half times as much as Trayon White in total constituent service funds. But White actually spends $881 more than Evans on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and other gifts each year.
- While current law prohibits elected officials from raising any more than $40,000 in aggregate each calendar year for their CSFs, elected officials may transfer leftover money from their campaign accounts to their CSFs. Trayon White has been able to win his elections raising relatively small amounts of money, putting him at a huge disadvantage in terms of access to funds to help his constituents.
• Unless changes are made, the vast majority of CSF money will continue to be spent in the higherincome wards. Evans’ most recent CSF financial statement (as of January 1, 2019) reports $143,152 incash on hand. White’s CSF has just $1,088. It would take Evans 2.4 years just to spend his cash on hand, under the $60,000 per year expenditure level.
Maxed Out Campaign Contributors, Government Contractors and Lobbyists Commonly Contribute to CSFs
D.C. constituent service funds covered in this analysis accrued $1.2 million from 2012 through 2018. Close to half of the money has come from the campaign accounts of the elected officials. The bulk of the remaining funds were raised from corporations and individuals.
- Contributions to CSFs are counted separately from campaign contributions, meaning an individual can contribute the maximum amount to both a CSF and a campaign account. Public Citizen analyzed a hypothetical scenario in which contributions to CSFs would count towards campaign contribution limits. If that were the case, there would have been 189 excessive contributions totaling $84,655 during the time period we studied. Jack Evans would have received the most excessive contributions by far –118 contributions totaling $54,200.
- D.C. government contractors like Blue Skye Construction, Fort Myer Construction and EastBanc Technologies contributed thousands to the constituent service funds of D.C. elected officials from 2012 through 2018. These companies also received millions in D.C. government contracts. Some of these contributions will be banned in the future with the recent passage of legislation.
- Prominent D.C. lobbying firms like Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and powerful D.C. lobbyists including Kerry Pearson, Thorn Pozen and David Wilmot have contributed tens of thousands of dollars toD.C.’s CSFs.