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Rick Cohen

Rick Santorum’s Unusual Foundation: Part I

Thanks to Don Imus, Rick Santorum's own words make a great case for augmented oversight of the purported charities and foundations of members of Congress. Imus is fond of Pennsylvania's junior senator, but he questioned Santorum on his show in March about the operations of Santorum's charity, the Operation Good Neighbor Foundation, that have received some burgeoning press attention recently.

Santorum's responses to Imus, all perhaps well intentioned, revealed much of what might be wrong with legislators' charities and why they merit attention in the context of lobbying reform and perhaps moreover as part of the Senate Finance Committee's attention to charitable accountability under Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Max Baucus (D-MT).

Here's Santorum's take as told to Imus on Operation Good Neighbor's nonpartisan expert staffing: "You bring in people of both parties, very high profile people, to make sure it's all done the right way. You bring in experts to consult with you to make sure you're not going to get in any trouble, and you pay them to make sure you don't get in any trouble and you're doing everything exactly by the book."

The Senator didn't quite acknowledge, though Imus raised it without response, that the allegedly expert staff brought in were his campaign staff, hardly nonprofit or philanthropic experts, notably Rob Bickhart as the foundation's executive director and Barbara Bonfiglio as the charity's treasurer. A lobbyist who runs a firm called Capital Resource Group, Bickhart is also Santorum's campaign finance director. Bonfiglio is a principal with the lobbying firm Williams and Jensen and serves as treasurer of his reelection campaign and also of his America's Foundation PAC.

Charity experts? For the 5 years of the organization's existence, these people failed to register the foundation with the state of Pennsylvania, where the foundation is physically located and where most of its "charitable" work is conducted, as required for charitable organizations soliciting contributions. Think of a nonprofit whose ED is also the rent-charging landlord. Does this raise questions of conflict of interest? Or maybe problems of distinguishing the foundation from the Senator's reelection campaign, since the office also serves as Santorum's campaign headquarters? This problem might have caught the attention of the board and officers if they were more philanthropically experienced and politically diverse than the four members listed on the foundation's IRS Form 990: Santorum as chairman (the website also lists him as founder), Bickhart as "executive", Bonfiglio as treasurer, and Mark Rodgers as secretary. Rodgers is hardly an "independent" board member, in Sarbanes-Oxley definitional terms, as he is Santorum's former chief of staff and now directs the Senate Republican Conference, which is chaired by Santorum himself.

So that leads to questions about Santorum's personal role in overseeing the foundation, and his explanation as expressed to Imus is sort of hands-off: "I try to keep my relationship as just someone who sort of shows up at events to help folks raise money and take pictures with organizations that receive the grants. I don't have any involvement in who gets these grants. I don't have any involvement in raising the money directly. I don't ask anybody for money, and to be honest with you, for the most part, I don't really know that many people who give to the charity."

In the ongoing Enron trial, that is Ken Lay's defense, which the press calls "the idiot defense," that Ken Lay, and now Rick Santorum, just didn't know what was happening in organizations their names were associated with and couldn't be expected to know. It doesn't ring any truer for Santorum than for Ken Lay. Santorum's explanation is not only hard to believe, but truly disturbing for a U.S. senator: "What I try to do is put it in the hands of good people, which we've done, who go out there and raise the money, and they decide where the money goes. So the answer to your question is I don't know and I don't really care."

Even his pal Imus didn't quite buy that line, commenting, "but you're the one being asked the questions, so maybe you should find out about it."

So who are the "good people" that Rick Santorum has entrusted with the tax exempt resources of the Operation Good Neighbor Foundation? And why do their roles and performance comprise not only a case study of what's wrong in some cases with philanthropic self-regulation, but why the foundations and charities associated with members of Congress need some serious, specific public policy attention. In Part II of this story, some of the Operation Good Neighbor Foundation players who have escaped the press limelight will be discussed, with their unique and sometimes unfathomable connections to anyone's concept of being a "good neighbor."

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Posted at 9:20 AM, Apr 07, 2006 in Government Accountability | Santorum
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