Thursday, December 1, 2011

D.C. funds for needy used more for perks


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.

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