If you wanted proof that the D.C. Council isn’t really serious about ethics reform, listen no further than councilmembers’ full throated defense of their goofy constituent service funds.
Throughout yesterday’s hearing on Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser‘s omnibus ethics bill, various councilmembers gave impassioned soliloquies in favor of the funds and intimated that if they were to go away, then some of the city’s most worthy nonprofits would go out of business, and some of its deserving students wouldn’t be able to afford to go to college.
In theory, the funds allow public officials to raise private money to be spent for the betterment of the city, on things like helping poor residents pay their electric bills, supporting scholarship funds for students, and keeping tax dollars from being spent on the bottled water consumed by council staffers (and, full disclosure, sometimes LL). But in reality the funds bring out some of the slimiest aspects in District politics.
First, consider that donors to constituent service funds are likely more interested in building a relationship with a politician than helping the less fortunate. The donor rolls are replete with contributions from the monied interests that run this town. In his most recent filing, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry reports raising a total of $5,000. All of it came in the form of 10 separate checks, all linked to the city’s biggest road paving contractor, Fort Myer Construction. If a sane person wanted to give money to help the poor or educate students, LL’s pretty sure the last place they would look would be any fund controlled by a politician.
Next, consider that the money is often spent on helping politicians help themselves, rather than helping those in need. There have been two number-crunching sessions in recent days that highlight this truth. The advocacy group D.C. For Democracy showed each councilmember had a low percentage of CSF spending in 2010 that went to “immediate constituent needs.” The Washington Times today reported that since 2004, only 3 percent of total CSF spending has gone to power and water bills of the needy, and only 2 percent has been spent on helping with funeral costs.
So where does the money go? We all know by now about Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans‘ penchant for buying top-of-the-line sports tickets with his constituent fund. And that Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander blew tens of thousands of dollars on rent and phone bills for an office that’s since closed down. Those expenses are obviously inappropriate, but councilmembers also spend gobs of money out of their constituent service funds, even on good causes, to help their strengthen their political brands.
Here’s an example: Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh spent $2,200 to dole out reusable grocery bags to her constituents in 2010, which is nice for those who got free bags, but also great advertising for Cheh. She also spent $5,200 last year on a “Ward 3 back to school barbeque,” which included $2,600 for catering and what appears to be nearly $500 on moonbounces for the kids. LL’s sure everyone had fun, but do we really want politicians using $5,200 of someone else’s money to throw a big party whose underlying purpose is to promote that politician?
Politicians obviously do, which is why most of them are for keeping the funds around. Bowser’s bill place some limits on the funds, but wouldn’t change them drastically. That’s a shame, because if elected officials were really serious about improving the corrupt culture that permeates District politics, then they’d admit the obvious: Constituent services funds don’t work and it’s time to dump them.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery