D.C.’s Constituent Service Funds: Misused, Inequitable and Ethically Fraught
By Mike Tanglis
Over the past seven years D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans spent close to $163,000 on professional sports tickets. He has paid more than $14,000 to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., in annual membership dues. Evans also spent thousands on print advertisements that largely promoted himself.
To make all these purchases, Evans did not use his own money, campaign funds, or taxpayer dollars. He used funds from his constituent service program or what is commonly referred to as a constituent service fund (CSF).
Under current D.C. campaign finance law, the mayor and members of the D.C. Council can establish constituent service funds for purposes such as “emergency housing,” “funeral arrangements,” “utility payments” and “other necessities of life.” The funds can also be used for food and refreshments and community events. All expenditures made must be done for the “primary benefit of residents of the District of Columbia.” Those who support the CSFs argue that they are needed to address constituents’ needs quickly when traditional programs might not be as easy to access.
But a look at the CSF expenditures of the District’s elected officials over the last seven years suggests that for many elected officials, meeting the emergency needs of constituents is not the primary use of those funds. D.C’s elected officials have spent tens of thousands of dollars 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, who has spent by far the most from such funds, has spent $162,816 on professional sports tickets.
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Further, those elected officials who raise and spend the bulk of constituent services funds represent D.C.’s wards where residents have higher incomes. While elected officials representing the lowest income wards spend significantly less. Jack Evans represents a ward with a median household income of $104,504. Councilmember Trayon White represents a ward in which the median household income is $31,954. In 2018, Evans spent close to $58,000 in constituent service funds. In 2018, White spent about $10,000 in constituent service funds. Evans spent more on just Washington Wizards tickets in 2018 than White spent on all of his constituent services.
Washington, D.C., has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. In a city with so many residents struggling to make ends meet in the midst of enormous wealth and privilege, calling the distribution of D.C.’s CSFs inequitable would be an understatement.
The constituent service funds in D.C. have long been controversial and have been the subject of multiple scandals. The editorial board of The Washington Post has at least twice – first in 2011 and again in 2015 – called for the funds to be eliminated. The Post described the funds as “private slush funds” and “second campaign accounts that can be used with broad discretion.” The Washington City Paper called the funds “a joke.”
Currently, nine of D.C.’s elected officials operate a constituent service fund: Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Mary Cheh, Brandon Todd, Vincent Gray and Trayon White. Five D.C. Council members choose not to operate CSFs.
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 CSF funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and gifts, the most of any elected official in this analysis. Gray is followed by Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who spent 43 percent of the CSF funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and gifts. At the other end of the spectrum, Councilmember 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 Public Citizen’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’ worth of 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 Jack Evans, who represents a ward with 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 Trayon White actually spends $881 more than Evans on immediate constituent needs, gifts and gift cards 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 higher income wards. Evans’ most recent CSF financial statement (as of January 1, 2019) reports $143,152 in cash on hand. Trayon 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 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 account of the elected official. 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 to D.C.’s CSFs.
While it is Public Citizen’s belief that these funds should be abolished, currently there appears to be little appetite among the D.C. Council to do so. A provision that would have abolished the funds was removed from the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018 to ensure the bill’s passage. If the CSFs are to continue, serious reforms are needed. Some suggested reforms are listed below:
- Ban private contributions to CSFs. Budget – using taxpayer funds – $10,000 to $20,000 per calendar year for each elected official to use to help constituents with immediate needs. This would give all elected officials equal opportunity to help constituents. Under the current system, the fundraising prowess, political power and connections of each elected official largely dictates how much help constituents receive.
- Create tighter restrictions on how the money can be spent. Advertisements and outreach using constituent service funds should be strictly limited to alerting constituents that help is available through these funds. References to elected officials should be prohibited in advertisements. Sports tickets, are not a good use of constituent service funds and should be prohibited.
- Ensure that when CSF financial disclosures are submitted each expenditure is described in enough detail to ensure that one can gain an understanding of how the money was spent by reading the disclosures, without additional follow up.
On average, from 2012 through 2018, the D.C. elected officials with CSFs spent about $160,000 per year in total in CSF money. Mayor Bowser recently proposed a $15.5 billion annual budget for fiscal year 2020. If it is decided that $160,000 or $200,000 more a year is needed to help D.C. residents afford their rent or utilities, it won’t bust the budget, and it can be targeted towards those who need it most.
Currently, what constituent service funds are spent on largely depends on whatever the elected official deems to be reasonable (within the bounds of the regulations). It’s clear that Jack Evans has a much different view of what constitutes a reasonable expenditure than Anita Bonds or Kenyan McDuffie.
If constituent service funds are going to continue to exist, serious reform is needed and safeguards need to be put in place. Hoping elected officials use the money wisely is not good policy. Requiring them to do so is.