Funds for D.C.’s needy go elsewhere

Alexander gives 5% to her ward

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A D.C. Council member who represents some of the city’s poorest households has spent less than 5 percent of the money she has raised since 2007 to help constituents with urgent needs, such as funeral expenses, rent and utilities, a review of campaign finance records shows.

Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat who sponsored a 2009 bill to double the amount council members can raise for their constituent services fund, has spent the bulk of the money she raised from businesses, labor unions, lobbyists and others on catering, consultants, advertising and supplies for community events and fundraisers, the records show.

And unlike many of her colleagues, Ms. Alexander has declined to provide receipts or invoices that would justify thousands of dollars in recent expenditures from the fund.

Ms. Alexander has raised more than $120,000 for constituent services over the past three years, according to quarterly reports she is required to file with the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). Of that total, records show she spent more than $69,000 — at least 57 percent — on consultants and events.

Her reports further show that her office spent in excess of $44,000 — at least 36 percent — on rent, telephone service, utilities, computer expenses and equipment to maintain a privately leased office that she also used for a campaign office on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. Ms. Alexander is the only member to have leased office space with constituent service funds, despite a law that requires the city to provide rent-free space to council members for such purposes.

Past-due rent of an unspecified amount and an unpaid telephone bill totaling $5,388 forced her to shutter that office last month, as The Washington Times recently reported, while she relocates to a nearby office in a D.C. government building.

Of the remaining funds, bank fees, petty cash and postage accounted for roughly $2,700, with more than $3,700 — just 3 percent of the total funds raised — described on her reports as “other.” Among expenditures labeled “other” are a $200 payment to a funeral home, a $172 payment to a florist and a handful of unspecified payments to Ward 7 residents.

Those figures are out of step with Ms. Alexanders colleagues on the council.

For instance, Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s quarterly reports show fewer expenditures for catering, consultants and fundraisers, and more expenditures labeled “other,” though the latter category frequently went to people in need.

Ward 5 Democrat Harry L. Thomas Jr.s use of his constituent services fund mirrors Ms. Alexander’s in terms of catering, fundraisers and community events, but his quarterly reports also show only a few consultants and numerous entries for residents, recreation centers and churches.

Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, spent less on catering and lists dozens of expenditures for fundraisers, but she also lists numerous expenditures for in-kind donations to people and organizations in need.

D.C. law says community events are a legitimate expenditure of constituent services funds. But Ward 7 residents have questioned how Ms. Alexander spends hers.

Great concerns

“Based on your expenditure report, it is not clear how the residents are benefiting from this program,” wrote Jackie Pinckney-Hackett, a Ward 7 activist and former director of the D.C. school system’s Office of Parent and Community Involvement, in a recent e-mail to Ms. Alexander. “This concerns us greatly.”

Residents and community leaders also are becoming frustrated that Ms. Alexander has refused to disclose details about her constituent expenditures or delinquent bills at her office space, which she leased from D.C. developer and former Ward 7 council member H.R. Crawford.

“Today marks one week since I requested information that should be readily available to your constituents or the public,” Ms. Pinckney-Hackett wrote in the Feb. 23 e-mail. “This delay gives the appearance that you are ‘STONEWALLING’ as opposed to restoring the public trust.”

Villareal Johnson, chairman of the Ward 7A Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said, “It’s troubling that she seems unwilling to cooperate. As elected officials, we have to be accountable to our constituents. They are entitled to information. They have the right to be upset when they don’t get it.

“The numbers don’t look good,” said Mr. Johnson, a former Ward 7 council candidate. “People believed that the lion’s share of that money was for residents in dire need.”

Ms. Alexander declined to comment on the funds or respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for the information, ordering a Times reporter to “get out of my office.”

John Hoellen, the D.C. Council’s general counsel, said he is trying to determine whether any records exist supporting the expenditures and whether they should be released under the FOIA, adding they were “not necessarily council records.”

The constituent services program enables council members to hold fundraisers and raise up to $80,000 a year to help residents in need and host community activities. That limit was doubled in 2009 as a result of legislation sponsored by Ms. Alexander.

The fundraisers often attract donors with business before the city, similar to campaign fundraisers but with an important distinction: Excess campaign funds can be rolled into constituent services accounts, but constituent services funds may not be used for campaign activities.

D.C. law requires council members to keep detailed records of all expenditures of constituent services funds, including receipts and invoices, for three years from the date they file their reports to the OCF. But the OCF says it requires council members to produce receipts only when it asks for them or when a random audit is conducted.

“Generally, we take them at their word,” said S. Wesley Williams III, the OCF’s public affairs officer.

Available on request

With the exception of Ms. Alexander, council offices have been willing to describe their record-keeping procedures. Many said they make detailed information available to the public on request.

“We keep more detailed receipts of expenditures in our files here at the office,” said Charles Allen, chief of staff for Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, in an e-mail. “I’d be happy to work with you if there’s something specific you’d like to review.”

Benjamin Young, chief of staff for David Catania, at-large independent, and Denise Tolliver, chief of staff for Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, also offered to make their records available.

“The receipts and backup are available for inspection at the office,” Ms. Tolliver said.

Ms. Alexander’s office has received six requests for further information from the OCF in recent years, said Mr. Williams, declining to elaborate. City records show the OCF audited Ms. Alexander’s office in 2009 and found discrepancies between bank records and amounts reported, an unreported expenditure and expenditures that did not have proper documentation.

The OCF recommended improvements to Ms. Alexander’s record-keeping and closed the matter after accepting an amended report.

In January 2010, OCF hearing officer William O. Sanford, now the office’s general counsel, suspended a $900 fine against Ms. Alexander for the failure of her treasurer, Derek Ford, to file a timely report. Mr. Sanford concluded that Mr. Ford’s other work demands were the cause of the late filing.

Last month, the OCF also said it would hold an “informal” hearing as a result of another failure by Ms. Alexander’s office to meet the deadline for filing her quarterly constituent services fund report.

Mr. Ford is listed as vice chairman of the board of the D.C. Housing Finance Agency. His biography on the agency’s website boasts 14 years of “progressive financial experience within the private, governmental and non-profit sectors,” and says he is treasurer for the Ward 7 Democrats.

He referred questions to Ms. Alexander’s chief of staff, J.R. Meyers, who had no comment.

Quarterly reports dating back to December 2007 show that Mr. Ford has received more than $8,200 in constituent services fund expenditures, for “supplies, catering, travel, postage, petty cash and consultant.”

In addition, an Oct. 8 expenditure listed in Ms. Alexander’s most recent quarterly report was paid to UMS Inc. for consultant services in the amount of $1,000. The report lists an apartment building off Benning Road Southeast that is identical to the location listed by Mr. Ford in his receipt of 27 previous expenditures from Ms. Alexander’s constituent services fund.

A review by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs confirmed that Mr. Ford owns an apartment in that building but found no business registration in the city for UMS Inc.

Ms. Alexander has scheduled another constituent services fundraiser for March 10 at Tony Cheng’s Restaurant in Chinatown, according to an invitation obtained by The Times that says political action committees, associations and businesses can contribute.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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