Sunday, November 5

A 'bad cocktail' of politics and charity

Earlier today I found this article by Tom Ferrick Jr., a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It describes the group Operation Good Neighbor Foundation. The charity was founded by Sen. Rick Santorum and seems to be exactly the type of group IRS Commissioner Michael Everson was talking about when he told the National Journal recently: "Politics, money and charities make for a bad cocktail."

Since 2001, the foundation has served as a platform for Santorum to espouse "compassionate conservatism." It has served, de facto, as a privately financed source of WAMs - an acronym for "walking around money," the grants pols so love to spread among groups to build goodwill and burnish their image.

In the spring, when I first looked into Operation Good Neighbor, Santorum's presence was hard to ignore. The Web site featured 34 pictures of the senator, most in the same pose: standing amid smiling recipients, handing over oversized checks, usually in the amount of $10,000.

The charity claims to have given out more than $700,000 since its inception. It rarely gives to the same group twice. It does not offer sustained support. It prefers one-shot (or, rather, one-photograph) deals.
So, what's the problem, right? Ferrick doesn't trust the recent trend of pols creating or being closely connected to foundations. The list includes Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. For one, it raises transperancy questions:

If I contribute $2,100 to the Santorum campaign (the individual limit under law), it will be duly recorded and open for the public to see.

If I give $27,900 to Operation Good Neighbor, though, my name and amount of donation remain secret. As an added benefit, I get to deduct the donation from my taxes.

Now, I ask you: How does Rick Santorum see my gift? As a donor, I hope he sees it as a lump sum - $30,000 donated by his pal, Tom.
This past spring Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.) offered an amendment to require foundations started by elected officials to disclose the names and gifts of all donors who gave more than $250. Not surprisingly, the amendment failed in committee, though Baucus has since introduced it as a separate bill.

Operation Good Neighbor, has declined to disclose its donor list, saying "it wanted to respect the privacy of donors." But Santorum is fighting for his political life and has tried to distance himself from the foundation.

When radio host Don Imus asked him about it earlier this year, the senator replied: "I try to keep my relationship as just someone who sort of shows up at events to help folks raise money and take pictures with organizations that receive the grants. I don't have any involvement in who gets these grants... [or] involvement in raising the money directly. I don't ask anybody for money, and to be honest with you, for the most part, I don't really know that many people who give to the charity."

Translated: I have nothing to do with it, except to show up to take the credit.
Especially in light of the scandals surrounding how Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff have used charitable tax-deductable groups to provide access at a price - Congress should act to provide full disclosure of how donors to these groups influence elected officials.

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