Bush Donors Boost First Lady’s Library Foundation

Posted May 17, 2004 at 6:41pm

Flush with donations from President Bush’s political supporters, the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries has quietly secured $21 million in pledges over the past two years, turning it into one of the nation’s biggest charities linked to a political figure.

Fundraisers for the foundation confirmed that the biggest donors include the chairman of Ameriquest Capital, a mortgage company, who gave $1.8 million of his own money. Other gifts of $1 million or more came from foundations run by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, the chairman of Marriott Inc., and Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corp. The foundation’s roster of top fundraisers includes the CEOs of General Motors North America, Wal-Mart and Clear Channel Communications.

While the first lady herself does not actually solicit funds for the group — that’s left to a 10-person team of old Bush friends, political supporters and corporate CEOs — she has spoken at a handful of events designed to raise money from potential donors.

The Laura Bush foundation’s success at leveraging a prominent political figure’s name on behalf of a charitable cause comes at a sensitive time in the ongoing effort to regulate money in politics.

Government watchdogs have expressed increasing concern about politicians or their supporters opening nonprofit charities that use the politician’s name. While critics concede that charities such as these aid the public good, they add that the donation of large sums of largely unregulated, tax-free dollars from wealthy donors — many of whom have business before the federal government — poses at least the appearance of a conflict of interest for the sponsoring politician.

“It’s a way to please the first lady, and perhaps the president,” said Gary Ruskin, the head of the Congressional Accountability Project. “It’s another pocket to fill.”

Several dozen Members of Congress have established such charities. Earlier this month, the insurance company AFLAC canceled a charity fundraiser scheduled for this summer’s Democratic National Convention after one of the Congressional cosponsors, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), pulled her support under pressure from a watchdog group.

The first lady’s foundation, though fast-growing, also pales in financial comparison to the foundation controlled by the woman who would succeed her — Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Aides to Laura Bush’s foundation say that the first lady has kept her distance specifically to avoid criticism that donors could be using their gifts to curry favor with the White House.

“If there’s an event and Mrs. Bush is at it, there’s no fundraising,” said Kenny Emson, an aide to the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, the nonprofit agency that runs the Laura Bush foundation’s day-to-day affairs. “We have to keep an arm’s length relationship with the White House.”

Dallas-based philanthropist Ruth Altshuler, one of the foundation’s top fundraisers, echoed Emson’s assessment. “She just doesn’t want to be criticized, so she’s really hands-off,” said Altshuler, who has given $1 million to the foundation.

But Altshuler — who received a presidential appointment to the board of the Library of Congress Trust Fund in December — said the first lady is kept abreast of who gives how much to the foundation. “She’s really appreciative when she hears about fundraising gifts,” Altshuler said.

In addition, the first lady spoke at a dinner May 10 at the home of Manhattan real-estate developer Roland Betts, a Yale University fraternity brother of the president’s who was also one of his business partners in baseball’s Texas Rangers.

At events such as these for potential donors, Mrs. Bush — a one-time professional librarian in Texas — speaks about the foundation’s work and her passion for supplying under-funded school libraries with books. In the days and weeks following the events, attendees receive follow-up calls or letters asking them to donate to the foundation, aides said.

How big a political boost the foundation’s grants give to the first lady and, by extension, to her husband is unclear. But instances have arisen in which the first lady has mingled her official and political duties with work for the foundation.

The Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries was officially launched July 30, 2001, coinciding with the first annual National Book Festival co-hosted by Mrs. Bush and the Library of Congress. Given her profession, Laura Bush has long made education and children’s literacy a hallmark issue. During her time as Texas first lady, for instance, she founded a Texas book festival in Austin.

At the conclusion of an official White House conference on school libraries in June 2002, Laura Bush announced the creation of a 10-person leadership council that would raise money for the charity. The first grants were handed out in May 2003, typically $5,000 a piece for 132 different schools around the nation. Last week, a second round of grants were made, totaling $660,000 to 136 school libraries.

Emson said that the foundation has taken in $15.8 million in contributions so far and has another $5.2 million in outstanding pledges. The charity’s goal is to reach $25 million or more, which should allow the foundation to increase its grantmaking total to about $1 million a year and leave enough of a nest egg to enable the program to live on well past Laura Bush’s tenure at the White House. “It will be here forever,” Emson said.

The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, an umbrella foundation, serves as the administrator for the Laura Bush foundation as well as 420 small charitable funds. The umbrella group files one tax return that covers every foundation it handles the paperwork for, and charges each charity a service fee of one percent of revenues.

Though she lends her name to the group and makes some appearances, the first lady does not have an official role with the foundation, nor with its fundraising leadership council, nor with the group of library experts who decide where the charity’s grants should go. Laura Bush is involved “only in the sense that she espouses the cause,” said Beth Ann Bryan, the volunteer executive director of the foundation. “It’s really a fund that was named for her.”

White House aides to Laura Bush deferred comment on the charity to foundation aides.

While foundation officials credit Bush with being a forceful advocate on behalf of the charity, the actual solicitation of funds is handled by the leadership council. This group consists of executives, or relatives of executives, for six of the nation’s largest corporations, including J.W. Marriott Jr., the CEO of Marriott International and the chairman of the leadership council.

Also on the council is Lowry Mays, the chairman and CEO of Clear Channel, a radio-station conglomerate that has taken heat during a decency-standards crackdown by the Federal Communications Commission.

Whether as a result of their volunteer fundraising or not — and foundation officials adamantly deny that there is any connection — some members of the council have received special perks from the administration.

Pam Willeford, the first executive director of the foundation, is now the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. Chris Boskin, a former vice president of Worth Media, which publishes Civilization, the Library of Congress’ magazine, attended the state dinner for the Polish president in July 2002. And Delphine Daft, wife of the retired chairman of Coca-Cola Inc., attended a state dinner in September 2001 for Mexican President Vicente Fox. (Before entering politics, Fox worked for Coca-Cola’s Mexican affiliate.)

Bryan, the foundation’s current executive director, insisted that neither members of the leadership council nor donors to the foundation receive any extra access or privileges beyond knowing that their effort and money will help low-income schools purchase books.

“Anyone who is generous with their donations gets one thing: books for kids,” she said. “That’s it. They give for altruistic reasons. What happens as a result of that donation is that more books go to kids.”

But Bill Allison of the Center for Public Integrity noted that the fundraisers and corporate donors to the Laura Bush foundation appear to be getting meetings with the first lady that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.

“The face time they get can only benefit them even if they don’t specifically lobby her,” said Allison. He questioned whether the business interests would have contributed to another organization not run by Mrs. Bush. “I’m sure that the first lady being involved in it has some attraction for those special interests,” he said.

While there are no tax returns or public documentation of the foundation’s work or donors, officials did provide a broad overview of who their top contributors were.

The largest donation came from Roland Arnall, chairman of Ameriquest, for $1.8 million. Arnall was once a major Democratic donor — in the 2000 cycle he gave $360,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $1,000 to the Senate campaigns of Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). But since Bush’s election, he has become a major backer of the president.

Arnall personally gave $2,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04 Inc. and as a “Ranger” he has shepherded at least $200,000 to the president’s re-election coffers. Earlier this month, Ameriquest signed a 30-year deal worth a reported $75 million for the naming rights to the Texas Rangers stadium, a classically modern ballpark for which President Bush is widely credited with securing the funding when he was a baseball owner in the early 1990s.

The timing of the first lady’s events for the foundation have sometimes coincided with her husband’s political priorities. About a month after the first grants were announced in 2003, Laura Bush made a day trip to Ohio and Pennsylvania, a pair of battleground states critical to her husband’s re-election efforts.

According to news reports, Laura Bush visited Cincinnati’s Oyler Elementary School on June 25, 2003. She read books to 28 students in the school library, which had just received a $5,000 grant from the Laura Bush Foundation. Later, she headlined a fundraiser that took in $800,000 for the president’s re-election bid. It was held at the home of Mercer Reynolds III, a former business partner of President Bush’s who is now treasurer of Bush-Cheney ’04.

That same day, Laura Bush made an appearance at Philadelphia’s Beeber Middle School, which had also just received $5,000 for its library. She toured the school and read to students in the library. Afterward, she headlined a Bush-Cheney ’04 fundraiser in the City of Brotherly Love that brought in $565,000.

At each school, Bush personally donated a copy of the latest book by J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

Bryan said there was nothing wrong with visiting schools that Bush’s foundation had been benefiting, or mixing her campaign travel with charitable work, because it brought attention to the first lady’s most important cause.

“The advantage to visiting those schools is to highlight the cause,” she said. “That’s the focus of the visit. That’s the cause. I think that’s a good thing.”

Some Republicans contend that the first lady is not alone in leveraging her name, or her husband’s, through the use of a foundation. After the death of her previous husband, Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), Teresa Heinz Kerry inherited foundations worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Questions have been raised about whether she has been able to use the funds at her disposal to advance political ends.

Just last week, for instance, the Heinz Endowments announced $20.7 million in new grants, mostly to environmental projects in the Pittsburgh area, which was home to her late husband. The environment has been a major wedge issue for John Kerry’s campaign against President Bush.

While watchdogs say they intend to closely monitor where Heinz Kerry’s donations go, they add that Laura Bush’s foundation poses a more worrisome challenge. While the Senator’s wife’s foundation draws on its own resources to make grants, the first lady’s solicits money from people who could be affected by changes in administration policy.

“That’s where the problem is, in the solicitation end, the donor end,” Ruskin said.

With $21 million already lined up in commitments, the Bush foundation ranks as one of the largest connected to a political figure, other than those, like the Heinz Endowments, whose money comes from accumulated personal wealth.

The National Center for Responsive Philanthropy — a nonpartisan watchdog group that is generally considered to lean liberal — estimated that roughly 30 Members of Congress have set up foundations (or have had supporters set them up in their name); have established charities that require fundraising; or have given out grants or endowed chairs at universities. Another estimate by PoliticalMoneyLine.com, which tracks money in politics, found at least 51 Members who had some connection to foundations or non-profits.

Typically, these foundations have budgets worth a few million dollars, such as the $2 million-plus raised in March for the Ted Stevens Foundation. While Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was still Majority Leader, his supporters raised approximately $8 million to open the Trent Lott Institute at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi. And Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) raised $5 million for a similar institute in his state.

Laura’s Leaders:

The following 10 people make up the “leadership council” of the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries, putting them in charge of raising a stated goal of $25 million. Most members of the council are also supporters of President Bush’s re-election campaign.

J.W. Marriott Jr.: Chairman of the foundation’s council, top person in charge of raising money as well as one of the largest donors through a $1 million check from his own foundation. As chairman and CEO of hotel giant Marriott International Inc., he and his wife have given at least $50,000 — overwhelmingly Republican — to federal candidates and party committees this election cycle.

John Bryan: Vice chairman of the council, retired chairman and CEO of the Sara Lee Corp. Bryan is the only member of the council who supports Bush’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), having been an early supporter with a $2,000 check in May 2003. His financial donations have also gone to state Sen. Barrack Obama’s (D-Ill.) campaign for U.S. Senate.

Ruth Sharp Altshuler: One of the top fundraisers and donors to the foundation, including a $1 million personal check. A philanthropist married to a prominent Dallas doctor, Altshuler was appointed by President Bush to the Library of Congress Trust Fund board in December 2003. She has served on the board of trustees of Southern Methodist University, Laura Bush’s alma mater.

Chris Boskin: Along with husband Michael, an economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has contributed $4,000, the maximum amount, to Bush-Cheney ’04 Inc. Boskin is the former vice president of Worth Media, where she oversaw marketing roles for its entities such as Worth Magazine and Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress.

Gary Cowger: President of General Motors North America. Cowger has given $2,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04.

Delphine Daft: Wife of the retired chairman of Coca-Cola Inc. Daft has given $2,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04. The Coca-Cola Foundation gave $1 million to the Laura Bush Foundation. She has raised money for Kennedy Center galas and attended the Bushes’ first state dinner in September 2001, in honor of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Annett Kirk: President of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Mich. Kirk is the widow of the late Russell Kirk, a prominent conservative author and philosopher in the second half of the 20th century.

Frederic Malek: Chairman of Thayer Capital Partners in Washington. Malek was campaign manager of President George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful 1992 re-election campaign and earlier worked in the Nixon administration. Malek and his wife have given $4,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04, as well as more than $90,000 to other campaigns and committees. Malek is in charge of District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams’ (D) effort to bring a Major League Baseball team to the District.

Lowry Mays: Chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Communications. Mays, who has given $2,000 to Bush-Cheney ’04, has had many issues central to his media radio conglomerate come before the Federal Communications Commission in Bush’s first term. Recently, Mays’ company pulled radio “shock jock” Howard Stern from its stations after the FCC levied a fine in its crackdown on broadcast indecency.

Marshall Payne: Managing partner in the Cardinal Investment Company of Dallas. Payne is a “Ranger” for Bush-Cheney ’04, having raised at least $200,000 for the president’s re-election campaign.

H. Lee Scott Jr.: President and CEO of Wal-Mart. He personally cut a $2,000 check to Bush-Cheney ’04, and his company’s executives have bundled more than $30,000 to the president’s campaign.

Source: Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries; staff research