Special Report

When Good Deeds Get Punished

Thanks to Fred Wertheimer’s anti-DeLay obsession, cancer-stricken and foster children will get less help. By his logic, today there’d be no March of Dimes.

By 7.14.04

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It is a good thing Fred Wertheimer and other self-styled campaign finance reformers were not around 65 years ago. Otherwise, the polio vaccine may never have been developed when it did.

In 1938 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes. Its stated mission was to eradicate polio from the face of the Earth. Roosevelt, a polio victim himself, raised money for the charity by soliciting tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends and business magnates. He threw annual "President's Birthday Ball" fundraisers in which FDR and various celebrities participated. (My mother has polio as well.)

Thanks to that funding, Dr. Jonas Salk was able to develop the vaccine. This reduced the number of polio cases in the United States from as many as 50,000 a year to virtually none.

But following the logic of Wertheimer, who is the former president of Common Cause and who now heads a group called Democracy 21, what President Roosevelt did was reprehensible. Lawmakers' soliciting large donations for charitable causes is a no-no, in Wertheimer's book.

Under pressure from Wertheimer and other groups, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) recently canceled a charity concert she was to host at this month's Democratic National Convention in Boston. Proceeds were to benefit CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation. It gives new meaning to the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished."

Political conventions are fertile grounds for charitable fundraising because of so many deep-pocketed potential donors being together at the same venue. For the concert, Lincoln was planning to seek contributions of up to $100,000, for which donors would get backstage passes, a photo op, VIP lounge passes, and an opportunity to chat with lawmakers.

She was to employ the long-established strategy in charitable fundraising of holding a high-priced special event. Donors get the opportunity to meet and greet notable persons. They come for a good time in addition to supporting a charitable cause.

AT NEXT MONTH'S REPUBLICAN Convention in New York, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) also was to hold a charity fundraiser, but it, too, got canceled. A long-time supporter of foster children, DeLay planned to solicit donations in chunks of up to $500,000 through offering luxury box seats at the convention, participation in a golf tournament, tickets to Broadway shows, and a cruise and dinner with DeLay. While 25 percent of the money was to pay for the entertainment and administrative costs, 75 percent was slated for foster children, notably a 50-acre residential facility for disadvantaged children in Fort Bend County, Texas.

Wertheimer called DeLay's planned fundraiser a "cynical scheme to evade the new law banning soft money and pay for a week long party in New York during the convention by corporations, lobbyists, and federal office holders." But how could this be a scheme to evade the campaign finance law, when the proceeds would have gone to charity rather than to a political campaign?

What irked Wertheimer was that donors would have had an opportunity to talk with DeLay and other GOP lawmakers -- in the same way that bigwig March of Dimes donors chatted with FDR. That's scandalous, you see, because not everyone has that same opportunity. Does that mean it is scandalous whenever anyone else speaks to DeLay -- family, friends, and people on the street -- because not everyone gets that opportunity?

And it's laughable to think that the cancellation of the charity-sponsored festivities will prevent politicians and lobbyists from schmoozing during the conventions. Believe me, there still will be festivities, and plenty of venues for get-togethers. Only now, the proceeds won't be going to charity. How sad is that?

To be sure, if a lawmaker were to divert charity money for actual political expenses (such as paid advertisements) or for personal use, then throw the book at him. But leave innocents alone.

WERTHEIMER'S ANTI-DELAY CAMPAIGN is also suspect because it has taken on a certain viciousness. He went so far as to file a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, asking it to deny 501(c)3 tax-exempt status for DeLay's charity because it would allegedly fund "private political benefits."

If he is to be consistent, Wertheimer had better get busy filing IRS complaints against Democrats and Republicans alike. At least 54 members of Congress are linked to 70 foundations similar to DeLay's charity, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. Or for that matter, Wertheimer is now obligated to file complaints against other charities that hold high-priced fundraising events to which lawmakers are invited; any social interaction with those lawmakers, especially when the conversation involves politics, could be construed as a "private political benefit." He should not forget the Special Olympics, given that charity's long association with the Kennedy family.

I have rarely seen an issue demagogued as much as the DeLay event. CBSNews.com ran the headline, "GOP's DeLay Using Kids To Get $$$?" One hyperventilating writer wrote an article headlined "Tom DeLay to Exploit Children for Money," and compared the practice to a "war crime," using kids as human shields.

The real outrage is that cancer-stricken and foster kids are now losing out on hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. For Fred Wertheimer, that's apparently just fine.

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About the Author

Peter Flaherty is president of the National Legal and Policy Center, a foundation promoting ethics in public life. The group sponsors the Government Integrity Project.