Glaucoma Caucus Has Private Ally

Posted April 12, 2010 at 6:29pm

At the New York-based office of the nonprofit Friends of the Congressional Glaucoma Caucus Foundation, callers to the main telephone number are greeted with “Congressional Glaucoma Caucus.”

Not to be confused, of course, with the Capitol Hill-based Congressional Glaucoma Caucus.

The foundation is a private 501(c)3, while the caucus is a bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers, which doesn’t have a dedicated telephone, much less office space or full-time staff.

As the nearly identical monikers suggest, both groups share an interest in glaucoma-related issues, including promoting and offering eyesight screenings, and at the same time offer an illustration of the intricate relationships between Congressional Member Organizations, as caucuses are formally known, and private groups.

Former health care lobbyist Stanley “Bud” Grant claims responsibility for organizing both groups a decade ago and now serves as president and CEO of the foundation.

According to Grant, the two organizations do not regularly meet — the caucus numbers more than 80 lawmakers, most of whom are House Members — and instead the foundation issues annual letters to Members, highlighting World Glaucoma Day and legislation promoting glaucoma screening.

Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), one of the caucus’ four co-chairmen and the only optometrist serving in Congress, said he has occasionally received personal briefings from the foundation.

“It’s very much like most of the caucuses — there’s some years we’re more active than other years,” he said, referring to the dozens of other CMOs registered in the 111th Congress.

“The purpose of the caucus is just to try and convey information regarding glaucoma … why it’s important for early detection,” he added.

But the nonprofit foundation does reach out to individual Members for earmarks.

Grant acknowledged contacting 30 Congressional offices for assistance in fiscal 2011, but he said he was unaware whether any Members had submitted those requests.

A Roll Call survey of Members’ appropriations requests found at least 10 offices that submitted earmarks to support the foundation in their home districts, which would net the nonprofit $1.75 million in the next fiscal year.

The majority of requests sought earmarks of $150,000 for glaucoma screenings offered to senior citizens, blacks and Hispanics, who are considered at-risk populations for the disease.

“The type of program we run, we deal mostly with underserved populations, or populations where there’s no access to health care,” Grant said.

Caucus members seeking funds include Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Donald Payne (N.J.), Jim Moran (Va.) and Frank Pallone (N.J.) and Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands).

Democratic Reps. Steven Rothman (N.J.), Ed Pastor (Ariz.) and Joe Courtney (Conn.) also submitted earmark requests, as did Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who is seeking $250,000 for the group.

Although Members are prohibited from soliciting for nonprofit organizations in their official capacities, there is no prohibition against earmarking funds for such groups.

House lawmakers who successfully procure earmarks for the glaucoma foundation do, however, face restrictions in promoting the group’s events in their districts.

According to the House ethics manual, authored by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Members “may not co-sponsor or hold joint events with outside entities, but they may participate or cooperate in such events.”

That means Members may issue press releases announcing the glaucoma screening events and stating that they will attend, but they cannot say they are “hosting” or “sponsoring” the screenings.

A review of several years of House press releases from both Democratic and Republican offices announcing the foundation’s events show multiple instances in which Members appeared to violate rules, characterizing Members’ roles in the events as “in partnership” and even as “co-sponsoring.”

According to its Web site, the foundation was initially sustained by corporate grants, but the nonprofit now operates almost entirely on a noncompetitive grant issued by the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC grant, first issued in 2007, is a five-year program, worth about the same amount each year.

The foundation received $3.46 million in funds in 2008, the most recent IRS tax return available, including the $3.46 million CDC grant, $1,500 from Allergan Inc. and $5,500 from the Morehouse School of Medicine.

According to that form, the foundation donated about $849,000 to medical schools and charities nationwide for research, paid $1 million for expenses including “professional services for glaucoma screening,” insurance and equipment; and paid about $960,000 in salary and benefits to Grant and other employees.

The foundation has received more than $30 million from the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services since fiscal 2001, according to HHS statistics.