Members Feel Very Charitable

Posted March 15, 2004 at 6:46pm

At least 48 current Members of Congress have either set up charitable foundations or had supporters establish such organizations in their names, according to a new report by a political watchdog group.

PoliticalMoneyLine scoured databases of 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofits and also used Internet searches and media reports to compile its latest list of Members connected to foundations or charities. The final figure was roughly triple the number of lawmakers connected to such foundations that PoliticalMoneyLine’s founders had previously believed to be in existence.

The latest survey was spurred on by last week’s public unveiling of the Ted Stevens Foundation, which was started by a half-dozen of the Senate Appropriations chairman’s supporters and former staffers. Its fundraising committee is comprised of 14 former aides to Stevens, all of whom have gone on to become registered lobbyists, many with business before his committee.

Critics of the growing trend of Members connecting themselves to charities question whether this is little more than another means for lobbyists and corporations to curry favor with a lawmaker, giving large dollars to a favorite charity to enhance one’s interests.

The Senate Ethics Committee was concerned enough about the issue that, when the panel last revised its rules manual, it specifically forbid registered lobbyists from giving to a Senator’s charity: “A lobbyist or lobbying firm may not contribute to a member’s charitable fund or make a contribution in lieu of honoraria to such a fund where the fund is maintained or controlled by the member.”

According to the ethics manual, the committee has not yet determined the definitions of “maintained or controlled” and therefore determines such things based “upon a case by case analysis.”

Such vagueness in the rules allows for the Stevens Foundation, as well as other charities established in Members’ names but not specifically controlled by the Member, to raise large amounts of money from lobbyists. The only guidelines for when it would appear to be forbidden for a Senator to raise money from lobbyists for a charity are when the Senator serves on the board, appoints members of the board, or when family members serve on the board. Also, if current staffers serve on the board, it may be considered “controlled” by the Senator and forbidden from accepting lobbyist donations.

In defending the foundation in his name, Stevens said it was independent from both him and his family, and noted that other lawmakers did the same thing.

Indeed, PoliticalMoneyLine had no idea how many Members were connected in some way to foundations or charities. Contacted by Roll Call last week about the Stevens Foundation, Tony Raymond and Kent Cooper, who run PoliticalMoneyLine, estimated that 18 current Members were connected to foundations.

After learning about the Stevens Foundation last Wednesday, Raymond and Cooper began digging and came across dozens more lawmakers connected to charities. And there could still be many more, particularly foundations that aren’t directly run by lawmakers, since those don’t have to be reported on a Member’s financial disclosure form.

Some of the foundations may no longer be active, such as the Good Neighbor Partnership Fund, set up by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) in the summer of 2000 to promote local community work around Philadelphia before the 2000 Republican National Convention.

In the Senate, Stevens is one of 23 to have had a foundation or charity connected to him. Some are based on personal or familial wealth, such as the Jon S. Corzine Foundation, John and Cindy McCain Family Foundation and the Kohl Foundation.

Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Inc., said his foundation raises no money and is instead operated on funds from Goldman Sachs stock that he donated to the foundation several years ago.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), whose private fortune was made as an insurance executive, has two foundations set up in his name, one to maintain a museum in his hometown of McCook, Neb., and the other to benefit education and business opportunities for youths in his hometown. According to his spokesman, David DiMartino, Nelson funds the non-profits through a mixture of personal wealth, leftover funds from gubernatorial campaigns and corporate donations pledged before he came to the Senate.

Others have set up institutes or fellowships at local universities. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), for example, helped raise a reported $5 million for the Conrad Burns Telecommunications Center at Montana State University.

Much of the money came from the telecom industry, which he oversees as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation communications subcommittee. Some telecom companies gave as much as $500,000 to the center.

Now, Burns serves on an advisory board of the center at Montana State. Other members of the board include officials with Qwest, Time Warner, MCI, AT&T, Lockheed Martin, Verizon, Microsoft, Gateway, NBC and BellSouth.

An aide to Burns sought to minimize the Senator’s role in the center, saying it was a “strictly academic” institution benefiting his home state. “We helped secure private industry funds,” said Grant Toomey, a Burns spokesman.

Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have also set up foundations connected to their home-state universities.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) helped set up a foundation to help fight AIDS in Africa, World of Hope. Staffers said Frist serves on the group’s board and does not accept lobbyist donations.

On the House side, at least 25 Members are connected to a foundation or charity. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has been connected to three different charities, all working with underprivileged children.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) is connected to the Paul and Nancy Pelosi Charitable Foundation. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is involved in a charity in honor of his late wife, Judith Hoyer.