A Chicago Democrat who has served in the House of Representatives for three decades is facing renewed scrutiny over his handling of campaign resources, according to a complaint submitted last week to the House Ethics Committee and obtained by The Intercept.
While it’s not unusual for the committee to receive superfluous complaints from frustrated constituents, this is not the first time the office has been questioned about its use of official funds.
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., formally announced in June he would run for reelection, marking the start of his 14th congressional campaign since he first took office in 1997 — and what is expected to be a hotly contested six-way primary.
Davis misused his congressional resources by spending funds from his office to amplify his electoral campaign, according to the complaint, which was submitted to the House Ethics Committee last week by a constituent, Tellis L. Parnell Sr. Various laws and ethics rules bar the use of official funds for incumbents’ election races.
Parnell alleged in his complaint that Davis’s congressional office violated House ethics rules by purchasing its first radio and billboard ads in the last six years just after he announced his reelection campaign.
“There is reason to believe that Congressman Daniel K. Davis has used funds from his Congressional office to purchase television and radio advertising to bolster his election in violation of either the spirit or actual law and House Ethics guidelines,” Parnell wrote. He requested a congressional investigation.
Parnell said he came across information about Davis’s official spending after a conversation with a friend who had done political work with Davis’s campaign. Parnell said he was not affiliated with any of Davis’s opponents.
Davis raised eyebrows last cycle when he used state committee funds to boost his congressional work, The Intercept reported.
The ads last year came at a time when critics say Davis’s long tenure has led him to lose touch with constituents and flounder in the face of deadly gun violence in Chicago.
One of Davis’s five challengers in the March 19 Democratic primary, anti-gun violence activist Kina Collins, came within seven points of ousting him in 2022. Two other primary candidates are running to Davis’s right and arguing that he’s not supportive enough of Israel.
Davis’s office said it follows all applicable House ethics rules and that the ads were unrelated to Davis’s campaign. His chief of staff, Tumia Romero, said Democratic leadership issued recommendations for House offices to use their remaining budgets to boost the party’s work on infrastructure and other issues.
“There’s a lot coming out of the government these days regarding the infrastructure act and all these kinds of things, and the only way that we can communicate to the 735,000 people in our district is through mass communications,” Romero said.
She said she had not received a copy of the complaint from the House Ethics Committee and declined to comment on a copy provided to the office by The Intercept.
“The people that are making these complaints,” Romero said, “what they need to think about are the people that are poor in our district, the people that don’t have health care, that’s what they need to worry about.”
Restrictions on Official Funds
Members of Congress are allowed to spend public funds to communicate with the public about their official duties, but there are legal restrictions and rules. Congressional offices, for instance, are subject to blackout dates 60 days before either a primary or general election during which they are prohibited from sending unsolicited mass communications.
Davis, however, is not accused of violating that rule, Instead, the complaint alleges that his Washington office’s profligate spending in the six months leading up to the January 19 start of the blackout for the Chicago-area primary raised questions.
During the period, which coincides with the first six months after Davis announced his reelection bid in June, his congressional office reported spending at least $42,000 on 27 ad purchases, the largest total number of ads purchased by the office in the last six years.
The ads tallied more than 2,000 individual spots across radio, television, digital, phone, text, billboard, and direct mail. The ad buys marked the first purchases in the last six years by his congressional office for distribution on radio and billboards. In contrast to the recent purchases, the office purchased one mail ad in 2022, five ads in 2021, zero ads in 2020, 17 ads in 2019, and zero ads in 2018.
“As a constituent, I’m concerned when I see my taxpayer dollars being used on campaign materials right before a competitive election,” Parnell told The Intercept. “I don’t think it’s right that taxpayers foot the bill for a PR campaign and it’s this kind of politics that we need to move on from. We need new leadership, it’s time for a change.”
“I don’t think it’s right that taxpayers foot the bill for a PR campaign.”
While the ads published by the House under public disclosure guidelines don’t explicitly mention Davis’s reelection campaign, their intent and timing appears intended to boost his image ahead of a major primary challenge, the complaint alleges, especially given the fact that his office has not previously used official funds for radio, television, or billboard ads, according to House records from 2018 to 2023.
The ads range from information about flooding in the district to the office’s sponsorship of a back-to-school event for local students. Most of the ads boost Davis’s congressional work, touting that Davis is “working for you, putting people over politics.” The ads are careful to direct constituents to his congressional office to clarify that the office paid for the ad materials.
The ads were approved under House communications standards that require a determination to be made by congressional staff as to whether the ad content constituted official business and was therefore eligible as franked mail, meaning mail paid for with public funds rather than campaign dollars.
Two other mailers received by constituents the day before the blackout period, images of which were provided to The Intercept, use pictures that also appear on Davis’s campaign website, which House rules prohibit. (Observers on Twitter speculated that the images were produced with the help of artificial intelligence.)
Romero, Davis’s chief of staff, said the government did not pay for the mailer and declined to comment further.