Presidential Candidates Mess with Nonprofits (Aug 07)

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After the withdrawal of former Virginia Republican Governor Jim Gilmore from the presidential race, America's always brilliant and satirical national newspaper The Onion put it best. When asked to comment about Gilmore's bowing-out, a man-in-the-street commentator replied, "Well, I guess the 'nobodies no one's ever heard of' vote is up for grabs again."

This issue of the Cohen Report offers another chapter on the presidential candidates' misuse of charity and philanthropy on the stump. Our focus isn't on the necessarily top-of-the-heap candidates gearing up for this billion-dollar presidential campaign, but on a couple of the medium-sized candidates: Mitt Romney-who ranks well below announced and unannounced candidates in national polls but posts robust numbers in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada — and John McCain, a onetime leading Republican candidate whose campaign is in such disarray that he may well join Gilmore and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack on the sidelines in the "nobodies" penalty box before long.

In September, we'll return to the candidates with massive electoral biceps, plus a couple who might slide into the race after September, such as, for example, everyone's favorite southern-accented New York district attorney, Fred Dalton Thompson, as well as the mayor of the city that hosts Thompson's Law and Order series, billionaire Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent Michael Bloomberg, maybe even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who likes to make candidate-like noises on occasion. If Gingrich joins Thompson and others in the campaign, the Cohen Report will have to revisit the Gingrich philanthropic saga [PDF], which is as murky a tale as you'll ever find.

 The Nonprofit Quarterly has covered this stuff for a while now. A few years ago, with the advent of campaign finance reform, we looked comprehensively at these political foundations. But the public's attention was galvanized when lobbyists became philanthropists, particularly Jack Abramoff and his Capital Athletic Foundation. Just about the only athletic conditioning that emerged from the foundation was the exertion of muscles to pass checks back and forth among the foundation, Abramoff's lobbying clients, various pols (such as Bob Ney) who got to benefit from its expenditures, and a few other nonprofits, including one associated with Republican antigovernment cheerleader Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

Just before the 2006 congressional election, then-minority leader of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, a Democrat of Montana, issued a report on financial transactions between lobbyist Jack Abramoff [PDF], Abramoff's ostensibly charitable foundation [PDF], and nonprofits linked to Norquist and others, with broad insinuations of apparent money laundering and profiteering behind the cloak of 501(c)(3) nonprofit confidentiality. The October release attracted additional press attention to Abramoff's activities, highlighting linkages to major Republican political figures. The report called on the Senate to close the legal loopholes that allowed Abramoff and pals to do what they did. But it's hard to find evidence of action. This month's short take looks at the Baucus report [PDF] and ponders.

Another short take? We wandered through a July hearing of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. For those of us who in 2004 had to withstand a grilling as witnesses at the Senate Finance Committee and face tough questions from then-Chair and Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and others, this session stood in stark contrast.