Hill Foundations Attract Cash

Posted February 6, 2009 at 6:08pm

Telecom, biotech, automakers, defense and cigarette manufacturers are among the more than 100 companies that donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past six months to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the most prominent minority-based charities that are connected to Members of Congress.

Included in the group are such corporate giants as Altria, Amgen, Dell, Ford and Lockheed Martin.

Along with lobbyists, unions and other interest groups, they gave nearly $2 million to the CBCF and more than $1.5 million to the CHCI.

Many of the companies contributing to the charities insist the donations, which fund foundations’ scholarship programs, fellowships, internships, legislative conferences and annual galas, are part of being good corporate citizens and are not an extension of their lobbying efforts.

“Our contributions are part of our community relations effort, not a lobbying one,” said Christin Baker, a spokeswoman for Ford Motor Co.

The struggling automaker contributed $75,000 to the CHCI and $25,000 to the CBCF, part of a commitment that is more than two decades old, Baker said.

But the foundations, whose boards are heavily represented by lawmakers, also provide companies unique access to Members of Congress.

The CHCI board, for example, is made up of 68 people, including 26 Members of Congress and one Delegate.

The foundation’s chairwoman, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), also chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and is a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee.

The full board includes several lobbyists, along with corporate representatives from companies such as PG&E Corp., Dell, UPS and Univision.

The CHCI, for its part, says that supportive companies’ lobbying efforts and the 501(c)(3)’s activities are completely separate. The foundation is nonpartisan and does not lobby Congress.

“Our board is comprised of leaders from the Hispanic community, Members of Congress and leaders in all sectors — nonprofits, small business, corporate — so it’s got representatives from a lot of different sectors that come together to support our mission,” CHCI President Esther Aguilera said.

“Board members strictly work on [CHCI’s] mission when conducting board business,” Aguilera added.

This is the first year corporate donations to Member-supported charities have been revealed.

As part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, corporations and their lobbyists are now required to report semiannually donations they make to lawmaker-supported charities and charities with a large number of Members on their board.

There is no contribution limit for companies and lobbyists or anyone else who gives to Member-supported charities.

The practice of corporations contributing to charities associated with Members of Congress first came under scrutiny after it was revealed that then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) had received millions of dollars from companies contributing to the DeLay Foundation for Kids.

Critics of the corporate donations argue that the money not only allows companies and lobbyists to curry favor with lawmakers, it also gives them an opportunity to have more face time with politicians.

“Anytime you have some very big-money events funded by corporations that have business pending before public officials and they are all working together in these dinners, receptions and events, or honoring a public official, it’s worrisome,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

Altria Group Inc., the parent company to Philip Morris, was by far the most prolific donor to the minority-based foundations over the past six months.

Altria gave the CBCF $206,000 in August, coinciding with the foundation’s annual legislative conference. The company donated an additional $100,000 to the CBC to bring victims of Hurricane Katrina to Washington for the Obama inauguration, Altria spokesman Bill Phelps said.

The 33 board members of the CBCF include 11 Members of Congress.

Altria also contributed $125,000 to the CHCI in August.

Last year, Altria had major business before Congress. The company spent $3.1 million on lobbying during the last quarter of 2008 with several big-ticket issues involving immigration and labor, and a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the cigarette industry.

The bill, which has divided support among the Congressional Black Caucus, is controversial because it exempts menthol cigarettes from a ban on flavored tobacco. Menthol brands are chosen by some 75 percent of African-American smokers, according to published reports.

“Our relationship with those organizations goes back decades, and their legislative conferences are places where issues that are important to our business are discussed,” Phelps said.

Biotechnology company Amgen also noted the connection between legislative issues and contributions.

“The Members of Congress and organizations which received Amgen corporate contributions or political action committee contributions are generally supportive of important issues such as patient access and innovation preservation,” Amgen spokeswoman Kelley Davenport said in an e-mail statement.

Amgen focused its contributions to the CBCF and CHCI on inaugural activities. The company donated $95,000 to the CBCF for inaugural activities.

It also donated $75,000 to the CHCI, giving $25,000 for inaugural activities and $50,000 for the institute’s legislative conference.

Dell Inc. also gave to both charities, contributing $60,000 to the CBCF and $94,000 to the CHCI.

The bulk of the company’s contribution to the CBC Foundation was allocated to inaugural activities, according to Senate lobbying records.

The company also has two employees, Kevin Brown and Gil Casellas, who sit on the CBC Foundation and CHCI’s boards, respectively.

“We have longstanding relationships with both the CBC Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic foundation,” said Colleen Ryan, a spokeswoman for Dell.

Dell has worked with the CBC Foundation to help create an online portal that highlights the African-American legacy.

The company’s philanthropic donations are not a part of its lobbying strategy, according to Ryan.

“We reach out directly to elected officials and have other ways of doing” government relations, Ryan said.

Verizon also is heavily involved with the CBC Foundation.

Verizon’s chief lobbyist, Howard Woolley, sits on the foundation’s board.

The company has contributed $155,000 to the CBC Foundation since September. It also contributed $10,000 to the CHCI.

Verizon wouldn’t comment.

The CBC Foundation and the CHCI are hardly alone in their fundraising efforts.

But it’s not just Member caucuses and their affiliated foundations that receive corporate largess.

There are also individual Members of Congress who are connected to foundations, including Rep. Joe Baca’s (D-Calif.) Baca Foundation, Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-Texas) Family Foundation, Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) Center for Renewable Energy, and the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation, which bears the name of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

There are also several other minority-based foundations, including the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education Institute and the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute.

None was as successful in its fundraising efforts as the CHCI and the CBC Foundation.

The Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, for example, raised nearly $180,000 during the past six months.

“Our organization is small compared to other foundations,” institute Executive Director Octavio Hinojosa Mier said of the donations. “Our fundraising is geared to providing programs.”