October 13, 2011; Source: Politico | Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) is inquisitive. He just loves to look into things. He has recently led Congressional investigations into the Justice Department’s controversial “Fast and Furious” gun-running program and the disastrous Solyndra loan guarantee at the Department of Energy. Lately Issa has trained his sights on the U.S. Postal Service.
Now here’s a subject possibly worth investigating: the weird though not necessarily unethical or illegal activities of Issa’s own family foundation.
Issa, with net assets of roughly $220.4 million, is the second richest member of Congress, just behind Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) who has $294.21 million, and just ahead of Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), whose wife’s ketchup fortune is worth $193.07 million? While no billionaire, Issa is certainly comfortable enough to be philanthropic, and he does have his own family foundation with assets of $28,478,899 according to its 2009 Form 990-PF. It awarded grants totaling $629,700 in that year, generally to service, educational, and religious charities.
The largest grants made by the Issa Family Foundation (the Congressman and his spouse are the only board members) in 2009 were $50,000 to the Sienna Heights University Foundation, $37,500 to North County Solutions, $30,000 for the San Diego USO’s gala, $25,000 for a Big Brothers Big Sisters dinner honoring T. Boone Pickens, $25,000 to the J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College (named after the former House Speaker), $25,000 to the Vista Foundation’s Moonlight Amphitheater, and $25,000 to the Directed Electronics Charitable Fund (Directed Electronics is the car-alarm manufacturer that is the source of Issa’s wealth). Now: Is there anything wrong with this?
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An article in Politico suggests that Issa may not be doing anything illegal or even unethical at the foundation, but he does engage in what the politics news outlet calls “intermingling his vast personal riches with his congressional duties.” Apparently, the foundation makes donations to charities on behalf of the staff members in his Congressional office and at the Oversight and Government Reform Committee (which has been a subpoena-armed thorn in the side of the Obama Administration ever since the GOP took control of the House in 2010).
Politico described the operation this way: “Staffers pitch Issa each holiday season, suggesting a charity worthy of a donation from the Issa Family Foundation. Issa then decides who gets a check, and the staffer is ‘recognized for their recommendation to the charity that receives the contribution.’ . . . The aides do not get a tax write-off or any other benefit, the office says.”
In 2009, the foundation made $42,000 worth of these sponsored grants on behalf of 18 staff members. In general each of the grants were for $2,000 or thereabouts; the recipients included the Boys & Girls Club of Vista, California, the Westminster Historical Society, and the Salvation Army (which received the largest of the 2009 grants, all of $4,000). The Issa Family Foundation also gave out $5,000 in grants in the name of the Oversight Committee itself.
“Weird,” says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Bizarre,” says Stan Brand, a former House general counsel. But no one seems to think that Issa’s philanthropy is unethical or illegal. No need for subpoenas, Congressman Issa, your foundation practices may be odd in terms of Capitol Hill, but not worth an investigation. As you were, we guess.—Rick Cohen