Santorum charity for the poor spent most of its money on management, political friends

As Republicans gathered for their national convention in Philadelphia a decade ago, Rick Santorum, who was then an up-and-coming senator from Pennsylvania, launched a charity that he said would improve the lives of low-income residents in his home state.

“Wouldn’t it be a great thing to leave something positive behind other than a bunch of parties and a bunch of garbage?” Santorum told a local reporter.

But homeless families and troubled children were not the biggest beneficiaries of Operation Good Neighbor. Instead, the foundation spent most of its money to run itself, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for fundraising, administration and office rental paid to Santorum’s political allies.

The charity also had significant overlap with the senator’s campaigns and his work on Capitol Hill. Among the leading donors to the foundation were Pennsylvania development and finance firms that had donated to his election efforts and had interests that Santorum had supported in the Senate.

Santorum, whose last-minute surge in the Iowa caucuses has brought new attention to his presidential bid, portrays himself as a common man concerned about the gap between the nation’s rich and poor. But in the case of his charity, his efforts ended up mostly helping his cadre of political friends.

Before it folded in 2007, the foundation raised $2.58 million, with 39 percent of that donated directly to groups helping the needy. By industry standards, such philanthropic groups should be donating nearly twice that, from 75 to 85 percent of their funds.

“That’s exceptionally poor,” Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, a national organization that rates charitable groups, said of the Santorum group’s giving. “We would tell donors to run with fear from this organization.”

Santorum campaign adviser John Brabender said the former senator remains proud of the cause he championed.

“Senator Santorum was very committed to helping raise funds for Operation Good Neighbor and did so with the understanding that those funds would be used to help many organizations and families located in urban areas of Pennsylvania,” Brabender said.

Group defends costs

Robert Pratter, who had served on the charity’s board, defended its management, saying its fundraising costs and payments to staff and consultants were reasonable.

“We were raising money for these very small mom-and-pop groups — the most effective way to raise money was the way we raised it,” said Pratter, who was formerly with Philadelphia risk management firm PMA Capital, a donor to the charity and to Santorum campaigns. “If you have a golf outing, it costs money to have a golf outing.”

Recipients, including an AIDS group, a local YMCA and others, received checks of roughly $6,000 to $15,000. Pratter said they were much-needed resources for tiny nonprofit groups struggling raise money on their own.

Robert Bickhart, a Republican political strategist who was Santorum’s campaign finance director, became the charity’s executive director.

He served without pay in 2001 but received payments for renting office space in his Conshohocken, Pa., consulting firm, Capitol Resource Group, to the charity. Tax records do not specify the amount paid for rent.

Beginning in 2002, Bickhart was paid for his part-time job as director, and from 2002 to 2006, he received a total of $97,000 in compensation, plus unspecified amounts in office rent.

In February 2006, the group was the subject of an American Prospect magazine article that reported some of Bickhart’s early fees and noted the charity’s low level of giving to nonprofit groups. Bickhart resigned from the charity later that year.

When Bickhart left, Santorum’s former spokeswoman, Laura Lebaudy, took over briefly as the charity’s director before it shut down, records show.

In its six years, the charity paid $347,088 for the fundraising services of Maria Diesel, a Chester County, Pa., events coordinator who has also helped raise money for Santorum’s political efforts.

Diesel did not return messages left at her home. And Bickhart, who in 2009 became finance director for the Republican National Committee and became mired in controversy over his stewardship of the RNC’s finances under former chairman Michael Steele, referred questions to the Santorum campaign.

Pratter said that Bickhart and others were properly compensated and that their political ties to Santorum were irrelevant.

“I don’t believe they got a tremendous amount of money, and I know whatever they got was for services provided,” Pratter said. “It wasn’t as if this was some kind of front. They did their work.”

Santorum PAC benefits

Bickhart also benefited from another Santorum organization, a political action committee known as America’s Foundation PAC, which the senator formed while he was in office. Lawmakers often use such committees, known as “leadership PACs,” to dole out money to political allies.

Santorum kept the committee going, even after losing his seat in 2006, and has raised $5.5 million over the past five years.

When he was in office and running for reelection, he gave 20 percent of the funds to other GOP candidates in federal races. But after Santorum left the Senate, that figure dropped to about 3 percent, although he also gave a small amount to local Republicans in key primary states.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, found in a 2011 study that leadership PACs run by lawmakers commonly give away 80 to 90 percent of their money to other candidates or political committees.

After he left the Senate, Santorum spent most of his PAC money — more than $3 million — on campaign-style expenses criticizing Democrats, including direct mail, polling and political consultants, disclosure records show. An additional $1.4 million went for travel, salaries and other administrative costs.

As with the charity, hundreds of thousands of dollars of the PAC money went to loyal aides with close ties to Santorum. Bickhart and his firm, for example, have received nearly $780,000 from America’s Foundation since 2001, records show.

In a January 2010 letter seeking donations, Santorum said he needed money to “reinforce our conservative allies” in Congress and retake control of the House. Though Santorum had not then registered as a presidential candidate, he also wrote he was “actively considering” a presidential run and hoped to “kick the Obama administration to the curb,” according to the Philadelphia Daily News.

Santorum centered much of his fundraising and political organizing in recent years on opposition to the policies of President Obama and other Democrats. In one thank-you mailing sent to supporters in 2010, Santorum said he was “fighting to preserve the very soul of America” and “to stop President Obama and his radical agenda.” The document is preserved on a vendor’s Web site as an example of award-winning fundraising work.

By 2011, much of the spending by America’s Foundation was centered on key primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as Santorum laid preparations for a presidential run.

Brabender said the expenses in primary states were proper.

“The senator spent a great deal of time on party-building activities and helping other candidates, and he was entitled to have these expenses paid for,” he said.

Federal campaign-finance laws provide few limits on how a politician can spend money from a leadership PAC, and candidates are not required to form a presidential campaign committee until they explicitly declare an interest in running for the White House.

Santorum formally announced his bid in June 2011, after spending about $585,000 in the first six months of 2011 through America’s Foundation.

“Leadership PACs have become a very common vehicle to be treated as a kind of slush fund for former officeholders,” said Paul S. Ryan, associate counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “It’s perfectly legal for a senator to amass millions of dollars in a leadership PAC, and then once they leave office or are kicked out of office, they can do whatever they want with that money.”

Staff writer T.W. Farnum, research editor Alice Crites and staff researchers Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

Deputy Editor, National Politics
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