Over the past year, voters in Bucks County have been bombarded with mailers sporting a familiar likeness: that of their congressman, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
What taxpayers in Pennsylvania's Eighth Congressional District may not have realized is that they were paying for the privilege of having those pamphlets adorned with Fitzpatrick’s face – and his various congressional achievements – mailed to their homes.
That’s because Fitzpatrick used his franking privileges – a congressional perk that covers legislators’ official communications – to write off $290,000 in mass mailing costs from the beginning of 2017 to February 2018.
While it’s Fitzpatrick’s money to spend, that’s a lot, even by congressional standards. In fact, according to federal records, Fitzpatrick logged more “mass mail and mass communications” expenses than all but eight of his 435 colleagues in the US House of Representatives.
His campaign said the money was spent on legitimate communications. But Democrats say the reason for Fitzpatrick’s conspicuous postal bill is simple: He’s facing a tough reelection battle in the northern Philadelphia suburbs against Democratic opponent Scott Wallace.
Eric Nagy, Wallace’s campaign spokesperson, said the mailers were nothing more than thinly veiled campaign lit.
“Sending out $290,000 worth of taxpayer-funded mail to tout ‘government reform’ is the height of hypocrisy,” he wrote. “If Fitzpatrick wants to communicate with his constituents, he should do it the old-fashioned way – by holding a real town hall.”
The Bucks County rep is not the first local pol to face scrutiny for use of the perk. Former Congressman Chaka Fattah, nearly bankrupt from fending off a long-running federal corruption investigation, similarly resorted to using his franking privileges to mail out literature, run radio ads and make robocalls during his 2016 reelection campaign.
Fitzpatrick is hardly as cash-strapped as the now-jailed Fattah: he reported nearly $1.2 million cash on hand before the recent May primary, according to FEC filings. However, it’s worth noting that he will face a deep-pocketed challenger in millionaire Scott Wallace, who is self-funding his campaign with an inherited agricultural fortune.
But like Fattah did two years ago, Fitzpatrick’s office has sought to depict the mailers as important communications between the congressman, who has denounced waste in Congress, and his constituents.
“Congressman Fitzpatrick prioritizes his budget allocation to engage with his constituents on issues and services that are important to them in a manner that is convenient for them,” said spokesperson Pat Long. “Instead of incurring expenses for multiple office spaces and excessive staff salaries, the congressman uses House-approved tools to conduct outreach and facilitate dialogue with his constituents.”
But even the nonpartisan government watchdogs, like the Philadelphia-based Committee of 70, questioned the legitmacy of Fitzpatricks use of franking privledges.
"I'd be curious to see a Franking Commission advisory on this, because it sure looks like campaign lit to me," said spokesperson Pat Christmas.
Yet some of the mailers appear largely focused on Fitzpatrick’s accomplishments – ironically, his efforts to clean up “the Capitol’s marshier corners,” as one pamphlet states. The same mailer features pictures of the Congressman at a packed town hall and a favorable quote from an Intelligencer editorial about Fitzpatrick’s proposed reforms.
Moreover, Fitzpatrick’s office has radically increased its use of franking privileges as midterm elections have drawn nearer. In the first quarter of 2017, he spent just $13,000. In the last quarter, that figure had ballooned to $209,000, after several potential opponents had jumped into the race.
Wallace’s campaign said the timing and nature of the mailers made clear Fitzpatrick’s political intent in authorizing the expenses.
“Campaign mail on the taxpayer’s dime doesn’t just blur the line; it crosses the line entirely,” Nagy said.