April 29, 2012; Source: St. Augustine Record

In Florida, we find this story about a nonprofit that has exceptionally close ties to state legislators from both major parties who have assiduously tried to find dedicated revenue streams to fund and expand the nonprofit’s operations. Now, the executive director of the Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates, Heather Beaven, is making her second try at a seat in Congress, which is fine and within her rights. The questions concern two of the Foundation’s board members, State Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) and State Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando).

The two state senators have submitted bills over the past few years that would have dedicated the $40 million paid in Florida liquor taxes to the nonprofit. The average annual budget of the foundation over its lifetime has been $1.3 million, much less than the annual $40 million the two state senators’ would give it.

According to the Florida Times-Union, the foundation has four programs: to help at-risk youths graduate, to recruit female students for careers in science and math, to promote anti-bullying school strategies, and to give students “real-life experience with things like journalism, composing and graphic-design.” They seem like worthwhile programs, but to be accorded a dedicated revenue stream—guided by two legislators who happen to be board members—raises ethical questions. A third legislator, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, is a non-voting board member.

According to the T-U, the state cut the funding of the foundation from $1.8 million to $900,000 in 2011. Beaven wrote an e-mail that’s all-too-common for the nonprofit sector, telling supporters that the foundation needed to raise $335,000 immediately or else programs would start getting shut down. The foundation’s national parent organization, Jobs for America’s Graduates, held a call with her and came away with the understanding that State Sen. Wise and House Speaker Weatherford “will do all they can to assure that adequate funding will be in place on July 1.”

While the legislators were pitching for the liquor tax, the foundation held various fundraisers “tied to the names of Siplin and Wise,” the T-U reports. Who donates to a nonprofit with politicians on its board? Who shows up at events such as the 2009 “roast” of State Sen. Wise?  Often, it’s people who want face time with the politicians, who want to be seen as supportive of the politicians’ personal charitable priorities, and those who want to find a moment or two to make a pitch for their concerns outside of government’s rules for lobbying disclosure.

It is important to note that nothing that the lawmaker-board members are doing for the foundation is in violation of Florida laws, according to the Times Union and the Record.  Moreover, the legislators are certainly public with their board identities, and they are not compensated. But few nonprofits in Florida have board members able to submit legislation to increase their budgets by a factor of 35. And few can hold fundraising soirees to fete lawmaker-board members and, in doing so, attract donations that “regular” fundraising events might not. It may not be illegal, but it doesn’t feel quite right.—Rick Cohen