March 26, 2019

Only a Quarter of D.C. Constituent Service Funds Are Used on Urgent Constituent Needs

Public Citizen Analysis Shows Constituent Service Funds Are Misused, Inequitable and Ethically Fraught; Reform Is Needed

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Only a quarter of D.C.'s elected officials' constituent service funds over the past seven years have gone toward their intended use: fulfilling residents' immediate needs, such as paying utility bills, buying food or funeral assistance, according to a report issued today by Public Citizen.

The District's elected officials are permitted to maintain a pot of money collected from private sources to make purchases to assist their constituents. However, the nine elected officials who have these funds have spent tens of thousands from the funds on calendars and holiday cards, as well as campaign-style T-shirts, banners and print advertisements that do far more to publicize the elected officials than provide any constituent services.

Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has spent $162,816 on professional sports tickets, which Evans has said he gives to constituents. 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 last year. Evans, who has long had a second job as a lobbyist and is under scrutiny for offering to steer the D.C. legislative process on behalf of corporate clients, has spent the most overall from his constituent service fund while spending the least on constituent needs.

In contrast, Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), spent the most of all elected officials – almost three-quarters of the funds – on constituent needs.
Campaign finance rules prohibit elected officials from using constituent service funds for the "primary purpose" of promoting or opposing a candidate. Public Citizen's examination of advertising materials purchased by D.C.'s elected officials using constituent funds reveals that, at the very least, the spirit of that rule has been broken. Elected officials reported spending a total of $100,679 on various advertising and outreach over the past seven years, Public Citizen's analysis shows.

"Constituent service funds are not being used for their intended purpose," said Michael Tanglis, a senior researcher for Public Citizen and author of the report. "The losers are residents who need a helping hand but aren't getting it. What's equally dispiriting is that the abuse of these funds is well-known. The Council should abolish the constituent service funds or radically overhaul them to ensure that the money is spent only as the law outlines."

Despite their ostensibly progressive intent, the funds are distributed inequitably. The Councilmember who has spent the most from his fund – Evans – represents the second-wealthiest ward in the District. Median household income in Evans' ward is $104,504, which is more than three times that of the median income in Ward 8, represented by Trayon White.

In 2018, Evans spent close to $58,000 in constituent service funds (just shy of the maximum amount that can be spent), while White spent about $10,000 in constituent service funds. Even with such a wide spending gap, White still spent more than Evans addressing immediate constituent needs. Evans' fund began 2019 with $143,152 in cash on hand, while White's fund had just $1,088.

Elected officials can transfer money from their campaign accounts into the constituent service funds, so officials who are able to raise more money can spend more from constituent service accounts. The rules also permit elected officials to raise more from special interests than ordinary campaign contribution limits would allow, so the funds can become a backdoor way for corporate interests and the wealthy to buy influence on the Council.

Public Citizen tallied 189 contributions to constituent service funds that would have exceeded limits if contributions to those funds had counted toward campaign contribution limits. Evans led the way, with 118 such contributions, totaling $54,200.

"These funds have become a backdoor way for corporate entities and the wealthy to curry favor with lawmakers," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. "Large special interest donations to these funds can have a particularly influential effect when the Councilmember is allowed to spend the money for political opportunism and even personal entertainment."

Nine of D.C.'s elected officials operate a constituent service fund: Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Evans, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), Gray and Trayon White. Five D.C. Councilmembers choose not to operate the funds: Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), David Grosso (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Robert White (D-At Large).

Five of the nine elected officials who operate the funds spend less than $20,000 each year, an amount that could be made up in a less ethically fraught way, Public Citizen contends.

Read the full report (PDF).