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Last month, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White came under the microscope over a $500 donation he gave to the Nation of Islam for an event the controversial group held in Chicago, where its inflammatory leader Louis Farrakhan made anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ remarks.
White used money from his constituent service fund account. These accounts let elected officials in the District raise money from private donors and spend it on the residents they represent for needs including funeral costs, late utilities payments, refreshments, rental assistance, and community events. D.C. politicians can also shift leftover money from their campaign committee accounts into their constituent service fund accounts without any limits on those transfers. Many of the same people and entities that contribute to political campaigns contribute to constituent funds.
Five councilmembers do not have constituent service funds—some of them abstaining for ethical reasons related to “pay-to-play” politics—while a majority of the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser do use them. Critics (including the Washington Post editorial board) have for years panned the accounts as little more than legal slush funds that elected officials can use to curry favors and influence—often involving groups who want to do business with the District. Proponents say the accounts benefit residents by providing additional services and helping to build community bonds.
In the course of reporting this story, City Paper learned that two years ago, the Council quietly approved a dramatic increase in the amount of money politicians can spend using these accounts, but did not hold a usual public hearing before the change was enacted.
The increase raised the annual expenditure limit from $40,000 to $60,000—a change so little broadcast that even this week D.C.’s Office of Campaign Finance, which is supposed to monitor the funds for proper use, said it had not publicly disclosed the higher limit. The office’s website still listed the lower $40,000 figure as of Wednesday. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans requested the increase.
But deeper changes to constituent service fund accounts and OCF could be coming soon. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Council’s judiciary committee, says he is considering legislation to tighten restrictions on the accounts, or even prohibit them, as part of a comprehensive campaign finance bill he hopes to advance later this month. “The fundraising aspect is what troubles me,” he says. “It’s fraught with conflicts.”
City Paper reviewed dozens of pages of 2017 and 2018 financial reports published by OCF that describe politicians’ use of constituent service fund accounts.
In addition to White, Evans, and Bowser, Councilmembers Mary Cheh, Brandon Todd, Kenyan McDuffie, Vince Gray, Anita Bonds, and Phil Mendelson keep such funds. As of April, the latest month for which the reports are available, the amount of money that D.C. politicians had in their constituent service fund accounts ranged from as little as $350 in that of Ward 3’s Cheh to about $163,000 in that of Evans.
The five councilmembers who do not have constituent service fund accounts, according to public records, are Brianne Nadeau, Robert White, Elissa Silverman, David Grosso, and Allen. Ward 1’s Nadeau, who once criticized her predecessor Jim Graham for operating a constituent service fund account, questioned the propriety of the funds after White’s donation came to light. “This is just the latest episode that underscores the historic problems with Constituent Services Funds being used for things that undermine the public trust,” Nadeau said in a statement in April.
The reports show that Bowser and most of the legislators who maintain these accounts raise money from well-connected residents, business executives, developers, attorneys, lobbyists, unions, and utilities companies. After the 2016 elections, four of the councilmembers transferred surplus campaign funds to the accounts.
The reports also show that while all of the officials did use their accounts to pay for expenditures like flowers for funerals, constituents’ water bills, and holiday gift cards, many spent their money on niche groups and things that arguably fall at the limits of what the rules governing the accounts allow.
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Bowser, for one, spent more than $5,200 last year to host her birthday party at The Salt Line, a riverfront seafood restaurant near Nats Park. The party doubled as a fundraiser for her constituent service fund account, which garnered more than $6,000 that day.
In several instances, the mayor and three legislators donated to a group whose founder lodged anti-gay and sexist comments outside the Wilson Building at a 2014 memorial for Marion Barry. The group, Cease Fire: Don’t Smoke the Brothers & Sisters, has advocated against youth gang violence since the 1990s and was recognized by the Council in a 2017 ceremonial resolution. Evans, Ward 4’s Todd, and Ward 5’s McDuffie gave to the organization.
Many of the other expenditures in the financial reports are listed as “supplies” from vendors like Amazon and Costco, while some are listed as “catering/refreshments” for occasions that are not always immediately discernible. (Among those that are: At-Large Councilmember Bonds held multiple “ice cream socials” at senior buildings throughout summer 2017.)
A few expenses are listed as “travel,” including four that White recorded during the dates of a Bowser-Council trip to Las Vegas in 2017. One of those expenditures is for Desert Cab, a business that has a Vegas address.
Last year, Evans spent more than $58,000—the most among his peers and roughly twice what Todd doled out as the second-highest spender at about $29,000. Bowser and McDuffie ranked third and fourth at $26,000 and $18,000, respectively.
Evans spends big on sports, a practice for which he has previously turned heads and defended as a legal way to help residents attend games. His 2017 expenditures include $7,850 in Nationals tickets, $7,231 in Capitals tickets, and $9,775 in Wizards tickets, the reports show. This year, he has spent $8,288.50 on Nationals tickets and $11,050 on Wizards tickets.
Other disbursements Evans registered were for Wall Street Journal and Washington Business Journal subscriptions ($445.15 and $298.74); membership dues for the Sierra Club ($225), the ACLU ($150), and the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. ($2,050); various event sponsorships for community groups; and apparent meals at Old Ebbitt Grill, Cafe Milano, and the now-closed Boss Shepherd’s.
Evans also refunded several hundred dollars worth of contributions to his fund from e-billboard company Digi Media and its affiliates. (District ethics officials are reportedly investigating Evans’ ties to the enterprise.) In 2017, Evans spent about $2,000 for Capital Pride and $157 on his office holiday tree, per the reports.
As for White’s $500 donation to the Nation of Islam, OCF asked the councilmember for more information about the expenditure than what his account’s treasurer had disclosed to the office in a required April 1 financial report. Wesley Williams, a spokesperson for the office, says it is reviewing a response the councilmember provided before a May 3 deadline. White could be fined if OCF finds that the donation violated District regulations.
Tendered last January, White’s donation raised eyebrows because by the time it made headlines, he had already faced scrutiny for propagating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories earlier in the year—actions for which he has since apologized. White has represented D.C.’s poorest ward since 2017.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist at D.C.-based think tank Public Citizen, has analyzed these kinds of accounts in the District, New York, and California. “Often it gets spent as a means to endear a class or a group of constituents to the office-holder,” he says. “It’s political in nature. It’s not social welfare.” He adds that the “best solution” for any abuses of the funds would be to ban them outright.
D.C. councilmembers voted to increase the funds’ spending cap in spring 2016. The new $60,000 amount was inserted into the fiscal year 2017 District budget following a brief, three-minute discussion among councilmembers that was part of the legislature’s yearly budget process.
The change, in other words, came about through a below-the-radar budget provision discussed during a seven-hour budget meeting in May 2016. Twenty minutes into the session, Evans gave an overview of budget recommendations from his committee on finance and revenue, according to a video recording of the meeting viewed by City Paper.
Evans did not mention the proposed spending limit until Ward 6 Councilmember Allen asked him about it. Ward 2 Councilmember Evans explained that politicians could “spend more money” under the amendment, and said his own account had far more than $40,000 in it. “I would like to be able to spend more money because I have it,” Evans said.
The Council voted on the entire budget days later, legalizing the higher amount. Although the limit on annual expenditures for constituent service fund accounts went up, the limit on annual fundraising stayed at $40,000 (not including any leftover campaign funds that are transferred).
In an interview this week, Evans confirmed that he requested the change. It benefited him last year, when he spent about $58,000 from his account, or 45 percent more than formerly allowed. “I’ve used the fund for 27 years to benefit my constituents, and I’ll continue to do that,” he says. With $22,635 spent as of the April 1 financial report, Evans is more than a third of the way to the limit.
OCF, which was still listing the former spending cap of $40,000 as of this week, points to the D.C. Code as the place where the update was actually published. “We are in the process of a comprehensive overhaul of our regulations (i.e., brochures and campaign finance guide) due to recent significant reform of the Campaign Finance law this year,” says Williams, the office’s spokesperson, in a statement. “Since the revision of the expenditure cap, no [Constituent Service Program] committee has exceeded the cap.”
Allen says OCF “needs to be a more aggressive watchdog” and that he is weighing a shake-up in the office’s management. The legislation he is considering to tighten or even prohibit the accounts could also ban “pay-to-play” political contributions from those who contract with the District, require more disclosures from independent political action committees, and mandate candidates to retire campaign debts that now linger for years.
“OCF has been sleeping at the wheel lately,” says Holman of Public Citizen. “We need an elections agency that’s on the ball. I’m hoping that OCF will soon wake up and smell the coffee.”