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Can a congressman use campaign funds to give you free T rides?

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Rider Stanley Innocent sat on a rock waiting for the Farimount Line train in the early morning last October.

By Globe Staff 

Members of Congress are sometimes judged by how much federal money they bring back to their district. But Representative Michael Capuano is taking a more direct route.

In an unusual bid to boost ridership on the Fairmount Line, which runs through Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury on its way downtown, the representative is donating $53,000 in campaign funds to the MBTA to subsidize free trips on the commuter rail line from May 8 to 21.

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It’s a personal effort to spur interest in the trains, which have frustrated many passengers with unreliable service. Last year, the Globe reported that Keolis Commuter Services, which runs the commuter rail system, had canceled more trains on the Fairmount line than any other, often rerouting them to larger suburban lines.

Capuano, who represents the neighborhoods that are served by the line, asked the Federal Transit Administration to conduct an inquiry into whether the cancellations violated riders’ civil rights. Since then, the number of cancellations on the line has markedly declined.

Riders cheered the free-ride campaign — and Capuano’s donation — as much-needed support for the service. But Capuano’s use of campaign funds to support a public program struck some political observers as unusual.

“I’ve never heard of any such use of campaign funds before and I’ve been doing this work for 20 years,” said Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, an advocacy group that promotes best practices in government. “But just to be perfectly clear, there are no legal problems with it.”

Brendan Fischer, a director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said the contribution was “a rare means of using campaign funds, but probably permissible.”

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“Candidates generally have a fair amount of leeway in how they use campaign funds,” he said.

Capuano’s office said it received clarification from the Federal Election Commission after the Globe inquired about the donation. Brian Mount, the treasurer for Capuano’s campaign said the FEC approved the expenditure, which will be categorized as “constituent travel.”

FEC regulations ban the “personal use” of campaign funds, but also state that “any expense that results from campaign or officeholder activity” — a fairly broad category — falls outside of that ban.

There are restrictions, of course. Elected officials couldn’t pay for a constituent’s college tuition, for example. But gifts of nominal value are allowed, as long as they’re not given in exchange for promised votes.

Capuano readily acknowledged that he hadn’t spent his campaign funds to fund public transit before. “It is unusual, but I’m always looking for ways to help my constituents,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to use my money.”

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said that ideally, public funds alone would finance the program. But with government money tight, sometimes individuals fill the gap.

“In our vision of the world, public funds would be used for promoting projects like this rather than campaign funds,” she said, “But there’s no inherent conflict of interest.”

In that vein, a recent study of the Fairmount Line by the Boston Foundation recommended finding sponsors for increased service, citing an unusual move by Wynn Resorts to improve the Orange Line with private funds.

The free rides are available at any of the eight Fairmount stops, from Readville to South Station.

“It’s only a 30 minute trip from Readville to South Station for weekday morning customers taking the 7:15 train,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the acting general manager of the MBTA.

“For two weeks next month, we hope people take advantage of the fare-free service, and learn the benefits of quick and easy train travel,” he said.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her

on Twitter @ndungca.