Did U.S. Rep. Ami Bera cook his constituent service numbers?
In a Dec. 21 news release, U.S. Rep. Ami Bera announced he would run for re-election in California’s redesigned CA-6 Congressional district, of which 44% of voters have never been represented by Bera. In his bulleted list of top accomplishments, Bera led with returning “more than $9.5 million” to “more than 21,000 Sacramento-area residents” since taking office in 2013.
Such touts are not new for Bera. For the past four years, the top of his Congressional home page has featured a running tally of total constituents served and dollars recovered for them. In previous campaigns, his constituent service work also played a prominent role, as none of his own bills have ever passed and he had never secured special funding for an in-district project.
However, his most recent constituent-service claims show sudden, dramatic increases that raise questions about the accuracy of his current and past figures.
This includes a recent $1.2 million leap in recovered constituent funds in less than two months at the end of last year. On Nov. 18, his Congressional web site reported $8.6 million in recovered funds during Bera’s career in office through October 2021. These funds typically are for contested issues involving the IRS or Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits. But five weeks later in his Dec. 21 campaign news release, this total leaped by $900,000 to “more than $9.5 million.” Then four days later on Dec. 25 this leaped up another $300,000 on his House web page to $9,868,654.
Thus during the final eight weeks of 2021, Bera claimed recovering for his constituents an amount that is 14% of his previous career total accumulated over nearly nine years in office.
So what accounts for these huge increases? Do they reflect a handful of recently resolved high-dollar constituent cases for which Bera’s office should happily take credit? Did his office suddenly add a new category to his figures not previously counted? Or something else?
To find out from Dec. 27 to Jan. 5, the Sacto Politico reached out for comment on a nearly daily basis to Bera’s D.C. office, his Sacramento district office in Rancho Cordova, and his campaign team. But none of these dozens of calls and emails were returned.
Likewise, that “more than 21,000 Sacramento-area residents” figure in his Dec. 21 campaign release was more than double the 10,000 constituents Bera reported having served 10 months earlier in January and February emails to constituents.
To put in better perspective, if Bera had achieved these same increases over his entire House career, this would equal more than $70 million recovered and nearly 120,000 constituents assisted (or nearly one in every 6 constituents in his current CA-7 district).
CONSTITUENT SERVICES EXPLAINED
Like Bera, many Congressional offices publicize how many constituents they have helped and the dollars recovered. For instance, La Jolla, Calif. Democrat Rep. Scott Peters began his House career in the same freshman Class of 2013 as Bera, and on Nov. 30, he announced reaching $7.3 million in recovered benefits. In her first year in office, Orange County freshman Rep. Young Kim (R) reports helping return more than $2.3 million to nearly 2,000 constituents. And her fellow Orange County GOP freshman Michelle Steel topped them all claiming $6.7 million recovered for 1,478 CA-48 residents in 2021.
Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a 48-year-old nonprofit that provides training to members of Congress, their staff and outside groups. In 2020, more than 1,400 staff, interns, and incoming representatives from more than 300 congressional offices participated in the training programs conducted by his group.
Fitch said he has never come across a case in which a Congressional office was found to have inflated constituent service figures. However, he said there is no single standard for what to count and all self-reporting is on the honor system. Thus he said it can be difficult to compare claims between offices. One Congressional office might choose to include Covid Paycheck Protection Program funds that they feel they assisted businesses in their district to secure, while another office might not, he said.
(When the above three Congressional offices were contacted for a breakdown of their customer service numbers by categories, none provided further detail.)
The term “constituent services” encompasses many non-legislative responsibilities performed by a political office. These include hosting tour groups, helping veterans replace lost medals, assisting with visa and passport problems, helping navigate federal red tape, and sponsoring students for scholarships and internships. On the financial side, this can include assisting with disputes involving Social Security, Medicare, the IRS and veterans benefits.
Fitch said most House offices will dedicate about one quarter to a third of its staff to full-time constituent service casework. To assist each Congressional office with such work, most key federal agencies designate staff to serve as special liaisons. This makes it easier for House and Senate staffers to navigate the bureaucracy than average citizens. Thus it is a standard basic service every Congressional office offers its constituents.
Fitch wouldn’t comment on figures from any individual Congressional office, but said most members of Congress are passionate about constituent service as most got into public service to assist the public. Plus, good constituent service work builds positive bonds with voters, and news about negative constituent-service experiences spreads even faster. Thus most offices put a premium on quality constituent-service case work.
BERA’S LONG-TERM INCONSISTENCIES
Bera does feature multiple anecdotal examples of constituent-service successes on his House web site. These all appear to be from his first term in office (2013-2014) with no updated successes since. Plus, a review of Bera’s constituent-service communications going back to 2014 shows great variations in his publicized stats. The review included more than three dozen news releases, archived versions of his House web site, campaign ads, emails to constituents, town hall meetings, and social media posts.
This found his claimed constituent-service numbers have regularly dropped and leaped significantly, particularly over the last two years. Some figures have dropped by 50% and increased by as much as 100%. (See bold red in the following chart for declines and bold blue for large increases.)
So clearly at least some of Bera’s publicized numbers have been incorrect. The natural questions are which ones, what are the accurate figures, and is any statistical padding involved. All of these discrepancies were shared with Bera’s office for comment or explanation, but no response has yet come.
These questions about the accuracy of Bera’s figures have extra resonance given how many ethical questions have surrounded Bera in his political career. In 2015, Bera was found to have plagiarized parts of multiple OpEds. He apologized, but still claimed ignorance and blamed a staffer. The Sacto Politico has also chronicled how Bera — a certified medical doctor – is one of California’s leading recipients of donations from the largest opioid makers and distributors in the U.S. All of his opioid-related donors are also currently being sued by Sacramento County to recoup millions of dollars in public health costs from the still raging Opioids Epidemic.
By far the most embarrassing questions he’s faced came from the campaign finance scandal involving more than a quarter million dollars in illegal donations to his 2010 and 2012 Congressional campaigns. Bera’s then 83-year-old father was convicted of two felonies and imprisoned for funneling the funds through dozens of family friends and acquaintances for re-donation to Bera’s campaign. Bera consistently claimed to have been completely in the dark.
QUESTIONABLE VETERANS FIGURES
In addition to his unusual final 2021 surge in constituent-service figures, Bera’s claims involving military veterans in 2019 showed similar sudden growth.
In print ads run in October 2019 called “Delivering for Sacramento,” Bera claimed recovering $2.2 million in benefits for more than 2,400 local veterans since 2013. But a few weeks later in a signed Nov. 11, 2019 email to constituents, these figures grew to “$2.6 million in benefits and services for veterans” covering “over 3,000 local service members and veterans.” This represented surprising jumps of nearly 20% and 25%, respectively, in just a few weeks.
At different times, Bera’s communications have also said about one-fourth of all constituents helped by his office have been veterans. Based on the figure in his Dec. 21 news release of more than 21,000 constituents assisted, this would mean Bera’s office has financially helped an astounding 5,000 of the approximately 40,000 veterans who live in Bera’s current suburban Sacramento County district – or one in every eight local veterans.
Attempts to get Bera’s current veteran service figures were part of information requests made to Bera’s offices and campaign. These too were not responded to.
NEW DISTRICT, NEW VOTERS
The timing of Bera’s most recent two-month surge also coincided with the final stages of California’s statewide redistricting process. Throughout this process, each draft Congressional map issued showed major changes coming to Bera’s district. This left little doubt Bera would need to introduce himself to hundreds of thousands of voters he has never represented.
The first draft maps emerged toward the end of October. These chopped off most of the southern half of Bera’s current suburban district, including his hometown of Elk Grove. This left the district’s northern suburban area. To this, the nonpartisan redistricting commission at first added parts of conservative Placer County to the north including Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln. This would have turned Bera’s district from solidly Democratic to highly purple. This immediately attracted interest from GOP Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), who instantly polled his supporters and constituents on whether he should run for Congress. (Kiley has since declared for the CA-3.)
But this threat from Bera’s right disappeared with later map drafts. However, instead of the district expanding north into Placer County, the final map expanded west into the northern half of the City of Sacramento. This has added a far more Progressive part of Sacramento County that is not a great fit for Bera’s moderate, pro-corporate record. It also accounts for most of the 44% of new voters he will need to court.
On the positive side for Bera, his new CA-6 Congressional district went +18 for Biden in 2020 and similarly so against the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom. So little chance would seem to exist for his two declared Republican opponents. One is Chris Bish, who ran last cycle against Rep. Doris Matsui, but who also trained her staff and volunteers using a former national strategist with one of the largest U.S. hate groups. The other is Tamika Hamilton of Yolo County who lost to Rep. John Garamendi in 2020, but has announced this cycle she will shift to running in Sacramento County against Bera.
So far no Democrat has declared against Bera to take advantage of this once-a-decade district rejiggering. This could change. Jimmy Fremgen of Sacramento previously declared he would run against Doris Matsui, and is expected to soon announce which Sacramento Congressional district he will run in.
Links to past Sacto Politico coverage of Ami Bera:
As Opioid Crisis raged, companies gave Matsui, Bera nearly $200K
Fine(d) Bedfellows: Worst corporations donate big
How Ami Bera dropped $1M in cash without really trying