You paid for it: Mass-mailers from members of Congress

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(KUTV) Another day, another piece of mail from Richard Silva's congresswoman, Mia Love.

"I received three of them in three weeks," Silva told Get Gephardt last July.

Silva reached out to Get Gephardt because, he says, language in the corner of each of the flyers caught his eye: "This mailing was prepared, published & mailed at taxpayer expense."

"I don't think it's appropriate," he said.

Particularly inappropriate, Silva says, is that, to him, the mailers appear to be strictly campaigning. Love has been locked in a competitive race for the seat she currently holds with democratic challenger Doug Owens and he says he received the mailing far more infrequently before campaign season.

"She doesn't really come out and say, ‘Vote for me.' She says, ‘Look what I've done,"

Sending mailers on the taxpayer's dime is legal, made that way by federal statute. For more than 200 years, members of Congress have enjoyed what’s called “franking privileges.” Congress has deemed that allowing its members to send mailers at taxpayer expense is an important means of informing their constituents.

Still there are rules. Among them:

  • politicians are not allowed to use the mailers to campaign
  • the content of the flyers has to be non-partisan
  • all mass-mailers, meaning sent to 500 people or more, that are sent to the mailboxes of constituents must also be sent to regulators in D.C., the Committee on House Administration. From there, all of that taxpayer-funded mail becomes a public record and is available to be inspected at their offices.

According to the budget reports of all four of Utah's elected representatives, there is a large discrepancy in the amount each chose to charge to taxpayers as well as the number of taxpayer-funded mail sent out.

Rep. Rob Bishop spent a mere $844.61, none of that on mass-mailers according to the Committee on House Administration. Bishop’s office tells us the charges were racked up sending individual letters, like letters of congratulations to constituents on major achievements, like earning an Eagle Scout award.

Jason Chaffetz spent $12,784.62 on 25,182 mass-mailers.

Rep. Chris Stewart spent $59,553.41 and he sent out 304,251 mass-mailers. Stewart said he believes taxpayer-funded mail is an important way to keep constituents informed especially about ways they can let their voices be heard. Rep. Stewart said he is particularly proud of the number of town hall meetings he has held throughout his vast district and 80% of the taxpayer-funded mail he sends out is to inform constituents about those town halls.

Coming in way above her colleagues, Rep. Love spent $127,544.24 between January 2015 and June 2016 and sent out 810,076 mass mailings.

The Committee on House Administration would not scan and email copies of the mass-mailers that are on file. So, as part of this investigation, back in August, Get Gephardt asked all four Utah representatives to send copies of all their mass-mailings for the past two years.

Again, records show Rep. Bishop didn’t send any to his constituents and thus he did not have any to send to Get Gephardt.

Rep. Chafetz and Rep. Stewart each agreed. Scanned and emailed copies of their mass-mailers arrived promptly. The mailers show that the vast majority of what each sent out was either a constituent survey or a flyer making constituents aware of upcoming town hall meetings.

Rep. Love’s office would only send a copy of one, single mass-mailer as an example. The example mass-mailer does contain a constituent survey. In an email, Rep. Love’s chief of staff Muffy Day writes, "This communication method is extremely important to let constituents know what the congressperson is doing, and the services their office provides."

Day writes that the particular example flyer provided, "led WW II Veteran Richard Johnson to call our office and request service medals he had earned but not received."

Obtaining the rest of Love’s mass-mailers took leg work. With the help of KUTV’s Sinclair Broadcasting sister station in D.C., an intern was dispatched who had to go in person to the archives and make copies of all of Rep. Love's taxpayer funded mass-mailers.

What they show? Like her colleagues, many of the mass-mailers offer constituent surveys and give notice of meetings -- but not all of them. Some do appear a tad more like what you might expect to see in a campaign ad.

For example, one mass-mailer declarers Rep. Love is "standing up for Utah students, parents and teachers" and contains a full color photo of Rep. Love surrounded by Utah students at the State Capitol. On the flip side, the mailer references votes Rep. Love has cast on education bills along with a quote from Rep. Love that reads, in cursive print, “I support Utah solutions to education – not mandates by the federal government. It’s an honor to serve you! –Mia.”

Another mass-mailer boasts about a ‘Spirit of Enterprise’ award that Rep. Love received from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The text on the mailer reads, “Utah’s growing economy is no accident. I work hard to ensure my votes in the House of Representatives reflects pro-growth, pro-jobs policies.”

Another mass-mailer, this one full page, talks about four different pieces of legislation Love has sponsored including, full disclosure, one that came about after a Get Gephardt investigation into military benefits as well as two followup stories when Rep. Love introduced the legislation and fought for it in a committee hearing.

In the past week, Get Gephardt reached out multiple times to ask Rep. Love for an on camera interview. She has not responded.

It's all legal but, as for Silva, he says he'd be just fine if, from now on, his representative paid for her own mailers rather than letting taxpayers do it.

"I've tried to send them back,” he laughed.

There are “blackout dates” that limit when members of congress can send out taxpayers-funded mailers. There is a hard cutoff 60 days before voting day in an election year. Even though the election is a mere 35 days away at the time of this report, to Get Gephardt's knowledge, every example of the mailers referenced in this story went out before that 60-day deadline.

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