Loose Lips

Fact: Constituent Service Funds Are a Joke

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

  • Anonymous

    private funds, private funds, private funds. these are the key words.

  • Wrack

    The title of this post is dead on. Yes!

  • Anonymous

    when does LL go from reporting to opinion? stick to the facts, man - aint nobody care whatchoo think!

  • John

    These funds are raised to support constituents and they are not used for that purpose. Like Mary Cheh that uses the funds to throw a party to make herself look good but she doesn't want to pay for her own party. And Cheh has a full time salary from GW University and her Council salary. LL is correct these funds should be ended and the corruption that goes with them.

  • Truth hurts

    LL, this is one of your most passionate, spot on pieces ever. Well done.

  • Drez

    Yup. Agree.
    Even in the few cases where money was given to needy constituents, it mostly is given for services that are duplicated by other entities.
    In fact, most politicians require the person asking for funds to prequalify by showing they have exhuasted those other sources. Relatively few people can.

  • Ward4

    The only constituents benefiting from the funds are the Councilmembers themselves. Are you saying they don't count as their own constituents? That's so unfair. They're people too.

  • http://www.keithjarrell2012.com Keith Jarrell

    In July three Petworth families were burned out. A total loss for all three families. At the time Bowser had an estimated $47k in her constituent fund account. She never once offered any assistance. Not even a phone call offering to buy tooth brushes or a check just to help the families get their feet on the ground. Yet she gives to various Democratic causes in the city.
    This is abuse of the very word constituent funds. She fails to support the most needy in her ward, yet sits as chair of the oversight committee that is now reviewing ethics.
    For which councilmembers constituents funds is a part of the review. Let's be honest here. She is a frauduent as the rest and clearly benchmarked by the fact that her "ethics" legislation is short of complete.

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  • SEis4ME

    Oh lawd, WCP's own dynamic tag team agreeing with Alan on something? Get out! Who shot John! I shot the Sheriff!

    Now CM's shouldn't be able to use CS funds to host local events?

    here we go again....

    Alan this isn't your worst article as it is rather decent reporting with a sprinkling of opinion. It just lacks a lot of lustre. Kinda like watching a series of fireworks razzleb up in the air, then fails to dazzle. But I didn't shoot the dePuTee, ooo-ooo-ooo

  • Mark

    That's what homeeownwrs insurance and the Red Cross is for.
    This type of aid should nit be politicized.

  • http://www.keithjarrell2012.com Keith Jarrell

    I disagree, it's reaching out when people are in need.
    There are many other cases where help should have been offered and nothing was done.

  • Mike Madden

    @SEis4ME -- Mary Cheh didn't "host a local event," she gave away free stuff with her logo on it. How is that serving anyone except Mary Cheh's desire to get reelected?

    UPDATE: Right, she did host a local event, but she spent $500 on moonbounces and barbecue for some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Again, how is that serving anyone except herself?

  • Jack in Ward 4

    Keith- how do you know she never called. YOU DON't ...soooo why not zip it... was'nt your failed Council run.. if it could be called that enough to make u crwal in a hole???

  • Pete

    Great article.. how hard is it to pass an ethics bill that brings the DC City Council in line with the rest of the country?
    1. No outside employment
    2. No Slush, I mean constituent funds, anonymous transition funds, or "defense" Funds
    3. Term Limits
    4. Actually follow DC Code

  • Mark

    Reaching out to people in need is one thing. But it's the job of the Red Cross to provide emergency shelter, and it's on each and every one of us to plan for personal misfortune. Homeowner's insurance is almost universal. Do you know if the three homes you mentioned had it? If they did not have it, would you have taxpayers or political donations pay for the outstanding mortgage on their burned out home, as well as for their lodging and other expenses? What are friends and family for? Why would you want to politicize such basic care? I'm not a fan at all of the culture of dependence and patronage that would create.