- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2011

The law governing how D.C. Council members can spend money collected in “constituent service funds” is written so broadly that more than 60 percent of the 11,000-plus expenditures they have made in the past decade are classified in public records simply as “other.”

The elusive label far exceeds more descriptive uses for the expenditures by past and current legislators who directed how their funds were spent, according to 2002-11 data from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF).

The word “other” is used to describe the purposes of 7,189 expenditures, or about 63 percent of the 11,448 transactions, followed by 733 expenditures for “catering/refreshments” and 607 expenditures for “supplies.”

The use of constituent services funds has been a hot topic in recent weeks, after campaign finance officials decided that council member Yvette M. Alexander did not break any laws by using funds for things such as rent payments for a field office.

The Washington Times reported that Ms. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, used less than 5 percent of her fund to help her constituents, who are some of the District’s poorest residents.

Yet the investigation called attention to how the funds should be used - even if expenditures follow the letter of the law - and whether tighter controls are needed.

Each council member and the mayor can raise up to $80,000 for his or her fund, using leftover campaign donations and individual donations that may not exceed $500 per year.

The District’s broadly written law on the funds expressly forbids council members from spending money for political purposes, but allows expenditures for an activity or program that “provides charitable, scientific, educational, medical, recreational or other services to the residents of the District of Columbia, and promotes their general welfare.”

The fund is generally intended for constituents who have urgent needs, such as payments for utility bills, funeral expenses or rent.

Yet a review of expenditures shows a more liberal use of the funds for operating expenses or community perks that could make sitting officials seem more attractive to voters.

Expenditures are compiled on the OCF website and can be sorted by topics such as date, purpose, payor and payee.

“Other” is used in a majority of reports “as viewed by the public,” OCF spokesman Wesley Williams noted.

“However, there is usually a more detailed explanation of an expenditure listed as such on the report itself or as can be viewed internally by this office,” he said.

The OCF uses a bank of categories for its data entry purposes.

“For example, expenditures for office water would be placed in the category for catering/refreshment; expenditures for courier services or parking citations would be placed in the category for travel; and expenditures for mailings or shipping costs would be placed under postage,” he said.

Committees that file reports electronically also can select from these categories with a drop-down menu.

If an elected official submitted a report that said only “other,” the office would request additional information, Mr. Williams said.

Yet a review of investigative reports produced by the office for the past 10 years shows that the probe into Ms. Alexander’s fund was the only one to explore whether expenditures complied with D.C. law.

Mr. Williams said he thinks the OCF’s review of Ms. Alexander’s fund is the first of its kind, although the office performs a “desk audit of every financial report filed with the agency, including citizen-service reports.”

A 2007 report by The Washington Times and an Aug. 21 article by The Washington Post questioned whether it was appropriate for council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, to use the fund to purchase tickets for pro sports events that he gave away to constituents.

Most recently, the D.C. GOP called on the OCF to investigate 10 of the District’s 13 council members for what they say are donations to Democratic causes from constituent services funds. Three of those council members struck back within hours, saying the donations were for righteous causes and that the local GOP was co-opting recent debate and flexing the facts to their political benefit.

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said she donated $50 to a Gertrude Stein Democratic Club event, the Capital Pride Champions of Equality reception, on June 10 “without realizing the political nature of the event.” The money was returned, she said.

Mrs. Cheh said the other donation attributed to her, for $500 to the Ward 3 Democratic Committee, was made by her predecessor.

The office of David A. Catania, at-large independent, sent out an accounting of the funds named in the D.C. GOP’s letter. It included $100 to the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club for a salute to former Mayor Anthony A. Williams that also was sponsored by gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations, and a total of $420 to Democratic organizations that gave awards and scholarships to youths in Wards 7 and 8.

Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said his donations were to scholarships that happened to be sponsored by “ward Democratic organizations.”

“The Office of Campaign Finance has stated that these expenditures are within the law, because they are for scholarships,” Mr. Mendelson said. “However, I thank the D.C. GOP for its vigilance.”