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Washington – A Democratic challenger to Detroit U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar filed an ethics complaint Tuesday alleging the congressman’s use of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to finance advertising for his office on television, radio, billboards and other media.

Detroit Councilwoman Mary Waters, who is running against Thanedar for the Democratic nomination in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, said Tuesday she had sent a complaint to the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that investigates allegations of misconduct by members of Congress.

In her complaint, Waters cited a Detroit News report that said Thanedar planned to spend an estimated $789,000 of official funds on television ads and another $40,000 on radio ads in May alone to promote his work in Congress, according to advertising tracking data.

The ad boom, which accounted for 44 percent of Thanedar’s $1.9 million annual budget, came as he faced two high-profile challengers in the Aug. 6 primary: Waters and former Detroit state Sen. Adam Hollier, who has since been disqualified.

Thanedar led all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives in official advertising spending last year, totaling nearly $327,000, according to an analysis by Legistorm. The congressman’s advertising spending last year was 10 times the average $30,800 spending of lawmakers who reported spending anything at all on advertising in 2023, according to Legistorm data.

More: Congressman Shri Thanedar from Detroit spends a lot of taxpayer money on television advertising and billboards

Waters claims that Thanedar’s “thinly veiled political ads” run counter to the intended purpose of his taxpayer-funded office. She alleges that the congressman is “abusing” the franking privilege, which allows members of Congress to use their official budgets to pay for unsolicited mass communications to their constituents, including television ads, billboards, direct mail, and e-newsletters.

“Congressman Shri Thanedar should immediately return to the American taxpayers all money that was appropriated for legitimate office expenses but misused for distasteful political purposes that actually glorify the Congressman more than they effectively help the constituents of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, of which I am a member,” Waters wrote.

Thanedar dismissed Waters’ complaint on Tuesday, saying there was no reason to investigate and noting that nearly every member of Congress uses the postage privilege to communicate with their constituents.

Like other MPs’ ads and promotional material, Thanedar’s ads and promotional material have been reviewed and approved by a bipartisan committee that reviews all content to ensure that they are limited to the MP’s official “representational duties” and do not contain any obvious campaign material encouraging support for his re-election.

“Everything I did was approved by the Franking Commission and done within the time allowed – it ended before the embargo date,” Thanedar told The Detroit News, referring to the mass communications embargo that began on June 7.

That’s when House rules require lawmakers to remove television ads, billboards, and other unwanted mass communications for 60 days before the Michigan primary.

“They didn’t even ask questions and approved them within minutes, they were so obviously official,” Thanedar said.

In one of the TV spots, several of Thanedar’s constituents talk about the support they have received from his office. Another spot features video of an April 8 press conference Thanedar held in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue outside City Hall, hours before the total solar eclipse. In the spot, several local leaders are seen praising the $15 million in federal money he secured through funding requests for their communities.

On Tuesday, Thanedar referred to an eight-page glossy email he received last week from Waters’s town office, pointing out that she also uses taxpayer money to publicize her activities as an elected official.

Waters’ mailer includes photos of the councilwoman with President Joe Biden, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Senate candidate Hill Harper. It also touts the $7.6 million she secured for an accessible housing program for seniors and people with disabilities.

Members of Congress have a great deal of discretion in how they spend their official budgets, the bulk of which is usually used to pay staff. Members who exceed their allotted amount (Thanedar’s budget is about $1.9 million) are personally responsible for the overspending.

Thanedar said the billboards, infomercials and 17 tele-town hall meetings he held have helped quadruple the number of constituent assistance requests his office has received since January 2023 due to “extensive paid communications.”

“Communication with my constituents is extremely important to me. Every time I talk to people on the street, they tell me how much they appreciate hearing from my office. Since May, our office has received 90% more cases, and I wish there were even more,” Thanedar said in a statement.

“We have helped countless people get their tax returns, Social Security benefits, VA benefits and more. Since May alone, we have recovered $185,641.00 for voters across the entire 13th District. I want people to know that if they have a problem with the federal government, they can come to me.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics’ independent investigative process is confidential. It typically refers an investigation to the House Ethics Committee only if it concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe a violation may have occurred.

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