Scholarships Benefit From Andrews’ Campaign Funds

Posted July 18, 2009 at 6:03am

Mixed among the staff salaries, mobile phone bills and travel expenses paid from his re-election account, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) is also doling out a tidy sum to area students in the form of scholarships. According to his most recent Federal Election Commission report, Andrews spent nearly $18,000 to fund academic scholarships in the district in the first half of 2009, making him among the most prolific direct funders of student aid in the House. The New Jersey Democrat in May provided scholarships of $300 to 43 high schools and vocational schools in his district, as well as a $5,000 donation to a Camden charter school.Andrews spokesman Fran Tagmire said the lawmaker has made similar donations to area schools since his election to the House in 1990. “The Congressman donates $300 to every high school in his district and leaves the actual selection up to the discretion of each individual school,— Tagmire wrote in an e-mail. “While the $300 is a modest amount, there are over 45 awardees every year.—The lawmaker, who typically issues the funds in the spring, also hosts a reception for scholarship recipients, Tagmire said.During the 2010 cycle, only a handful of other Members have donated to scholarship funds or directly to schools, issuing funds between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars. Among those lawmakers are Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who donated $500 from his campaign coffers to the Bronxwood Preparatory Academy in New York, and Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) who gave $1,000 to the Fort Valley State University Foundation Inc., a Georgia state school.House and Senate lawmakers also commonly raise or donate funds for scholarships from their campaigns through nonprofit organizations.Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), for example, has donated funds from his campaign since the late 1960s to the Robert C. Byrd Scholastic Recognition Fund.According to the fund’s 2007 federal tax documents, the campaign donated $5,000, the only income the charity received. The scholastic fund issues savings bonds in the amount of $50 to the valedictorian of each of the state’s public, parochial and private high schools. The bonds cost $25 each.According to Kent Cooper, a former FEC official, donations made for scholarships or nonprofit charities are allowed under campaign finance laws. “There are practically no limits on using campaign funds for donations to scholarship funds other charitable organizations except the personal use exception,— Cooper said. While such donations may be beneficial to students, Cooper noted, Members and candidates can nonetheless benefit from their charity.“No matter how good or how poor the scholarship program might be or other charitable activity, there is often a positive spillover impact with the Member’s name recognition, visibility during an election year, reputation and community support.—The Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee said that while the goal of such donations may be laudable, using donor funds for scholarships could still raise questions about the purpose of such donations. “The troubling part is to me is it’s not directly related to an active campaign expense as a reasonable person would expect,— McGehee said. “Getting kids to go to school is a good thing. The question here is whether that should be a campaign expense.—