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Charitable political contributions

The Chron looks at a gray area of political contributions.

For the contractors and lobbyists whose public business rides on the trust and goodwill of politicians, it is no secret that campaign giving is a high-stakes game.

At Harris County Commissioners Court, campaign donations of $5,000 or more come along as often as hot days in a Texas summer. So, donors looking to stand apart from the throngs of high-dollar givers have found another way to make their generosity known: charity.

Over the years, county commissioners have helped local charities raise millions, at times tapping the same donors who fuel their political campaigns. But whereas campaign contributions are public record, donations to most charities are not.

Donors have said they open their wallets to worthwhile causes no matter who runs them. But campaign watchdogs argue that contributing to politicians’ pet charities shelters donors from public scrutiny — an attractive benefit for those who want to earn political favor without having their largesse exposed to watchdogs and competitors.

[…]

All four commissioners — El Franco Lee, Sylvia Garcia, Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole — have close ties to area charities, in some cases running their own using county staff.

[…]

Tommy Kuykendall Jr., president of the Houston branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said a desire to give back to the community is the sole motivation behind the vast majority of charitable gifts from engineering firms. He questioned how donating to a national organization, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, would benefit an officeholder, but acknowledged that lines between charities and politics can become blurred.

“I don’t know if I can give a good answer — OK, this is the exact line, once you cross it, you’re done,” he said. “Because there are a lot of good things that need to be supported.”

Well, here’s one place for that line to be drawn. There’s nothing in this story remotely as egregious as that, but it does show what the possibilities are, and why some folks have these concerns. I guess if it were up to me, I’d say if 1) an elected official or a member of an elected official’s immediate family – spouse, child, parent, or sibling – serves on the board of a charity; 2) if as noted in the story, a charity was founded by an elected official and/or is run by that official’s staff, or; 3) a fundraiser for a charity was organized or hosted by an elected official, then any contributions to that charity must be disclosed in the same manner as a political contribution. Actually, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to only require such disclosure for contributions above a certain amount, say $1000. Of course, all this would require the charities to do more paperwork, and it’s unclear what the best course of action for enforcing these rules would be in the event of a screwup with said paperwork – do you fine the charity? Would the TEC even have the authority to do that? Would you fine the elected official, even if the screwup was by the charity? So maybe this is only a good idea in theory. But I do think it’s worth talking about, because the potential for abuse by the truly unscrupulous is there. What do you think?

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3 Comments

  1. Charles Hixon says:

    Charities are an excellent way of trolling for likely new campaign contributors: folks who want to pay to play but need a little help at the door.

  2. Charles Hixon says:

    Al-Qaeda finances its activities through charitable contributions too – or so the republicans tell me.

  3. Rose M. Walker says:

    Re: charities and officeholders

    For an officeholder, a 501(c)(3) of one’s own allows invaluable personal exposure with donated funds. It’s an add-on PR fund that’s twice blessed. There’s the face time at events, some of them haute society, and “goodness” factor–being seen to lead the way to curing disease, addressing illiteracy, or saving the planet.

    At the family level, it can mean a job for a relative or loved on in a genteel, not-so-challenging environment.

    For the Party of the First Part (the politician), it is free travel, entertainment, and (based upon the purpose of the non-profit, an opportunity to pursue personal passions (arts, outdoors, sports, travel).

    Here’s how one hand can wash the other: The 501(c)(3), to be tax-exempt, needs to raise money from public or community donors. Hey! That money raised from “the public” comes from campaign donations. This filtering process means that I might donate to politician A (who might represent my interests in park development) only to have the politician donate money to a charity that is pushing a hospital where I thought a nature preserve ought to be.

    Methinks the line between tax-exempt organizations and taxpayer-supported politicians ought to be shiny bright. Instead, it is obscure.