June 14, 2005
Rick Cohen is the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
With a huff of indignation, 71 leaders from the nation’s top conservative organizations issued, on April 27th, a broadside addressed to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. It condemned legislative ideas tightening standards for nonprofit accountability and ethics currently being discussed in the Senate Finance Committee. Then, a bunch of these leaders signed up for and tromped to the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their support for the ethically beleaguered House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
The letter to Frist, issued by an organization called the Alliance for Charitable Reform , contained signers including Paul Weyrich (Free Congress Foundation, though signed to the letter as “Coalitions for America”), James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Tony Perkins (Family Research Council), Donald Wildmon (American Family Association), Gary Bauer (American Values), Gary Aldrich (Patrick Henry Center), and Richard Viguerie (the conservative direct mail fundraising titan).
The overlap could not be more obvious—the conservatives who don’t want stricter regulations and the conservatives who are abusing the system. Conservative nonprofit leaders carped that the Finance Committee’s proposals—generated by staff working primarily for the Committee chair, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa—would result in “stringent new regulations on charities of all types” with particularly onerous impacts on small charities. They also complained that the potential legislation, contained in a working paper issued by the committee a year ago, would “make board members of charitable organizations, many of whom generously donate their time and talent, subject to new and unjustified liability standards and legal exposure.”
They might have said board and staff members face legal or public exposure, citing the reports on the dubious charitable activities of DeLay and his friends, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and political powerbroker Grover Norquist. DeLay’s own foundation—as well as his plan for a Republican convention fundraiser last year—has been the target of well-aimed criticism from nonprofit good governance groups. Abramoff’s misuse of the Capital Athletic Foundation is daily and disturbing newspaper fodder, and most recently, Grover Norquist’s nonprofit has been linked, like Abramoff’s, in the channeling of donations from Indian tribes for purposes with questionable charitable content and little connection to the tribe’s priorities, charitable or otherwise.
But that didn’t stop Weyrich, Perkins, Keene, Bauer, and Blackwell from signing up as host committee members to the Tom DeLay salute without a blush of concern about the relationship of DeLay’s and his friends’ questionable ethics and their self-righteous pique against government oversight of their charities and foundations. Other signatories to the charity oversight protest were reported to be counted among the DeLay admirers, including Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Had the DeLay gala sponsors not blindly dismissed criticisms of the Majority Leader’s ethics as simply “attack(s) by Democrats and their liberal allies”, some of his—and Abramoff’s and even Norquist’s—philanthropic activities might have been seen as not only worth some intense scrutiny, but in need of new and higher ethics standards that would call into question the emerging abuses associated with the grantmaking of political foundations, to wit:
The conservatives of the Alliance for Charitable Reform can act all high and mighty in protesting the Senate's move to impose new and tougher standards for accountability and government oversight. But their actions betray their real values. If they had looked around the dance floor at the Capital Hilton on May 12th among the legions of DeLay supporters, they might have noticed a few potential philanthropic felons whose very existence makes the case for the need for new laws on philanthropic accountability—especially when the philanthropy is controlled by politicians and lobbyists.