'An Intolerable Fraud'

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

ORGANIZATIONS that cynically exploit America's best impulses to help its wounded veterans give a perverse new meaning to the notion that charity begins at home.

Troubling activities by some of the nation's largest veterans charities were revealed by a watchdog group and were spotlighted Thursday in a congressional hearing. The American Institute of Philanthropy studied 29 groups and found 20 guilty of such shoddy practices as high overhead costs, high-priced solicitations and big salaries to leaders. Even well-established groups such as the Disabled Veterans Association, AMVETS National Service Foundation and the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation got F's on the institute's report card. Help Hospitalized Veterans, The Post's Philip Rucker reported, paid its founder and wife a combined $540,000 in compensation and benefits. That some groups spend as much as 91 cents of every dollar raised on fundraising is, as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said, "an intolerable fraud."

How intolerable was revealed in the searing testimony of Edgar Edmundson, whose son Eric suffered serious brain injuries while serving in the Army in Iraq. The family has been fortunate to be helped by an honorable charity. But the father is enraged that veterans like his son are being used as a commodities by opportunistic fundraisers. Then, too, good charities -- the Wounded Warrior Project in the Edmundsons' case -- stand to be hurt if the backlash caused by these outrages curtails public generosity.

Action is needed to ensure that money raised in the name of wounded veterans actually benefits them. Pennsylvania has pioneered in cracking down on suspect groups, and other states should follow its lead. States need to share information so that a charlatan charity chased out of one state cannot easily set up shop elsewhere.

Better federal oversight is needed too. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), long concerned about the dubious practices of charities, rightly notes that these groups receive billions each year in tax breaks. The Internal Revenue Service needs to toughen its guidelines and its enforcement. At the very least, charities should be required to give a good, public accounting of how much of each dollar actually benefits the ostensible beneficiaries. As Congress studies what laws are needed, it also should clean up the government's house. The Combined Federal Campaign, which raises tens of millions of dollars from federal workers, should require any charity receiving those funds to meet high standards.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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