Charities on the Hill

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

PENNSYLVANIA Sen. Rick Santorum created his charity, "Operation Good Neighbor," when the Republican National Convention was going to Philadelphia in 2000. "I thought: 'Wouldn't it be a great thing to leave something positive behind other than a bunch of parties and a bunch of garbage,' " Mr. Santorum told the Philadelphia Inquirer at the time. But in the years since, Mr. Santorum's charity appears to have done a lot to help his political allies -- and less than it might have in its stated mission of combating poverty, teen pregnancy and other social ills.

According to reports by the American Prospect magazine and the Associated Press, Mr. Santorum's charity spent $1.25 million between 2001 and 2004, but it devoted just 40 percent of that to charity. (A letter from the charity's treasurer, who also serves as treasurer of Mr. Santorum's political action committee, explains that fundraising expenses alone are "close to 37% of expenditures, as these fundraising events are recreational outings such as golf tournaments.")

Meanwhile, a Santorum campaign fundraiser, Maria Diesel, received nearly $200,000 in fundraising fees from Operation Good Neighbor; another Santorum campaign fundraiser, Rob Bickhart, received $75,000 in salary from the charity since 2001, and Mr. Bickhart's business, Capitol Resource Group, rents office space to the charity.

The Santorum story highlights a largely unexplored area of congressional ethics: lawmakers' involvement with charitable organizations. According to a 2004 review of Internal Revenue Service records by the research group PoliticalMoneyLine, 48 members of Congress are connected to charitable foundations. These groups may do good works, but they also present opportunities for misuse -- to bolster members' political operations, for example, or to underwrite swank parties at political conventions.

Politicians and their spouses hit up companies and lobbyists that have interests before them to contribute to their pet charities, personal and otherwise, often dangling the lure of access to themselves and colleagues. Christine DeLay, the wife of former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), was remarkably straightforward about this phenomenon in a recent interview with Post columnist George F. Will that touched on the DeLays' charitable efforts on behalf of foster children. "I hated to lose the leadership position because it helps me to raise money for those kids," she said. And this all takes place outside public view, since, unlike political contributions, charitable donations aren't publicly reported -- though lawmakers obviously know who's kicking in to help their cause.

We're all for altruism, but that's not necessarily what's going on here. There is an inevitable element of extortion whenever politicians get involved in soliciting charitable donations. And when lawmakers have a personal interest in the charity, the opportunities for abuse are greatly magnified. Provisions contained in an ethics measure approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last week, and parallel language offered by House Democrats, would require that lobbyists report donations they make or arrange to lawmakers' charities, or gifts they make to other charities in recognition of politicians. That would shed some valuable light on a now-dark corner of money and politics.

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