- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells on Wednesday called for the elimination of special funds the city’s lawmakers are supposed to use to help the needy — money critics consider “slush funds” rarely tapped to help residents.

A Washington Times review of 10,000 payments totaling $3.3 million since 2004 shows that just 3 percent or $84,000 has gone to power and water bills, presumably for needy constituents, and $37,000 for phone bills. More — $133,000 — has been spent at pro sporting events.

Members also spent about $22,000 for delivery of bottled water and wrote $63,000 in checks to themselves, reimbursing themselves for meals with constituents and undisclosed other expenses from the so-called constituent services funds. Lawmakers raise money for the accounts from businesses and unions.

Mr. Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, called for the reform — backed by some but denounced by a pair of fellow council members — as part of a wish list of suggested changes to a comprehensive ethics bills under review by the Committee on Government Operations.

The proposed legislation by council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat and the committee’s chairwoman, took ideas from 10 ethics bills and set a starting point for restoring public faith in city lawmakers after two years of political scandal.

“This is a good first step,” Mr. Wells said of the bill. “I think it needs to go further.”

Ms. Bowser has indicated she wants to pass sweeping ethics legislation before the end of the year, a key priority outlined by council Chairman Kwame R. Brown. The bill reduces the amount each elected official can raise for his or her constituent services fund from $80,000 to $40,000.

The Times‘ review shows that source of the money aside, the expenditure of funds on perks and swag is the norm, not the exception, and sometimes goes to vendors and nonprofits connected to the politicians and their staffs.

Functions that were repeatedly heralded at Wednesday’s hearing as reasons the funds were essential, such as funeral expenses, appear minimally in expense records. Funerals and burial expenses accounted for only about $70,000, or two percent of the funds’ uses.

Council member Jim Graham’s fund has written $11,400 in checks to the Ward 1 Democrat for expenses. Mr. Brown’s fund paid him $15,000, typically justified simply as “reimbursement,” including a check written Sept. 27 for $2,082. In response to an inquiry, Mr. Brown’s office said the payments reimbursed the council chairman for costs including the production of a family Christmas card, parking and a camera.

“There is seriously something wrong when you’re not required to disclose exactly what it was spent on,” said Brendan Williams-Kief, deputy chief of staff for council member David Catania, at-large independent. “We keep receipts because we think that’s how you do things, but as the rules stand, they don’t demand that you do that.”

Twenty-four thousand dollars in checks were written to Mr. Catania’s former chief of staff, Ben Young, which Mr. Williams-Kief said a binder of receipts showed repaid him largely for money he spent out of pocket on parades.

Constituent funds also are regularly tapped for computers, cab rides and other travel costs, records show.

Ward 7 Democrat Yvette Alexander, who represents some of the city’s poorest and lashed out against those who suggested eliminating the funds, saying the move would deprive needy residents, has used about $6,000 assisting impoverished constituents including $1,200 on gift cards — 4 percent of the $141,000 she has spent, The Times analysis found. Some $6,000 more was donated to assorted charities at fundraisers, while the remainder went toward expenses like consultants’ fees, desserts, catering, advertising and office costs.

Ms. Alexander’s office did not elaborate on or clarify the expenditures to The Times.

Certain officials have been criticized for using the fund to pay for office space, sports tickets and catering for community meet-ups that can be construed as de facto campaign events.

Ms. Bowser’s bill dictates that permissible uses for constituent funds would include funeral expenses, utility bills and certain community events, while prohibited expenditures would include political contributions and season tickets to sports events.

Sekou Biddle, a Democrat running to regain the at-large seat he held on an interim basis this year, and Max Skolnik, a Democrat challenging Ms. Bowser next year in Ward 4, joined Mr. Wells in calling for the funds to be scrapped altogether.

But council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat who has been accused of spending too much of his fund on sports tickets, said the funds have “operated quite well.”

Council Member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent, said this is the wrong time to reduce the amount of money available to residents’ needs.

“Folks need help more than ever, and I think to go backwards in concern with our constituent services funds is wrong,” Mr. Brown said.

Ms. Bowser’s bill establishes an independent Board of Ethics and Government Accountability composed of three members appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan testified that the three-member board may provide “material improvement” over current enforcement, but he is concerned that the bill does not provide for complete staffing of the entity.

If ethics enforcement is so important to the city, “we should be willing to pay for it,” Mr. Nathan said.

Among other concerns, Mr. Wells said the bill should prohibit campaign donations through subsidiaries of the same entity, prohibit city contractors from donating to political campaigns and provide subpoena powers to the Office of the Attorney General.

Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, said the bill would have more teeth if it included term limits for elected officials and a prohibition on outside employment among council members.

“I do not believe this bill goes far enough to give us that fresh start and new beginning that we all desire,” Mr. Orange said.

Money disbursed, but still close

When politicians leave office, they do not necessarily forfeit the funds. When former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty departed at the beginning of the year, he transferred the entirety of his account, nearly half a million dollars, to the home of John Falciccihio, his chief campaign fundraiser, under care of a newly established nonprofit called Forward Faster.

The current mayor, Vincent C. Gray, made about 14 payments for rental assistance totaling $5,000, but those costs were dwarfed by $21,000 on food and even $10,000 on beads.

Constituent service funds have often gone repeatedly to the same vendors, sometimes closely connected to the world of D.C. politics. Since 2004, they have financed $230,000 for “Catering/Refreshments,” reports show, including $42,000 to Imani Catering, a firm owned by Lamont B. Mitchell, who worked as an aide to former Mayor Anthony A. Williams in the early 2000s.

“I’ve been doing City Council work since 1997 I know all of them,” said Mr. Mitchell. “I used to do it for the council breakfast and picnics, and some comes from the city coffers. I don’t distinguish how they’re paying for it.”

The amount paid to Mr. Mitchell’s company alone was similar to the total paid to Pepco to assist needy residents with keeping their lights on.

Meanwhile, more than $40,000 went to hired consultants and $7,000 to bank fees. Thousands was disbursed as petty cash and more than $50,000 in disclosed payments was simply listed as paying credit card bills.

Much of the remainder was spent on advertising, printing and postage, which can keep citizens informed about goings on in the city but also indicate that boosting a candidate’s name recognition is a prime function of the funds.

Legislation proposed by Ms. Bowser and considered Wednesday would cap funds raised at $40,000 per year instead of the current $80,000. But like most members, one must go far down the list of top recipients of Ms. Bowser’s fund to find charitable contributions. Fifty thousand dollars was paid to political consultants Bynum Thompson Ryer, including for printing costs; $15,000 in checks over three years were written to Ms. Bowser herself, and in third place was Mixology Bartending Services, with a $10,500 tab.

The largest nonprofit recipient, a dance school known as the Davis Center, received $4,500 in payments marked “fundraiser” and “scholarship” — and Brandon Todd, who works for the City Council as Ms. Bowser’s community outreach director, is on its faculty.

Ms. Bowser’s office did not respond to requests for an explanation.

The Washington Times harnessed detailed expenditure records for all constituent service funds from the antiquated PDF format in which they and campaign contributions are disclosed — the correction of which is not addressed in proposed ethics reforms — and assembled them in a database. The data includes payments since 2004, omitting a few reports submitted using an old system.