Nonprofit Channels of Influence

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Last week, in a post about the tobacco industry’s influence in the Congressional Black Caucus I noted the $50,000 contribution from Altria (formerly Philip Morris) to an university endowment in the name of Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. Clyburn, a tobacco ally, solicited at least $100,000 from Altria for his endowment at South Carolina State University since 2005. The full amount we don’t know due to a lack of disclosure. This issue of outside channels of influence hits print again today with an article on Sen. John McCain’s tenure as chairman of the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy nonprofit:

Operating without the sort of limits placed on campaign fund-raising, the institute under Mr. McCain has solicited millions of dollars for its operations from some 560 defense contractors, lobbying firms, oil companies and other corporations, many with issues before Senate committees Mr. McCain was on.

Recently, he has drawn criticism for involving lobbyists in his presidential campaign; under Mr. McCain, 14 of them have served on the institute’s board, some representing governments or organizations in countries where the group was carrying out programs.

Guests to annual meetings included Edward Whitacre, Jr., the chairman of AT&T, which contributed $200,000 at a time that it was seeking approval of a merger with BellSouth. McCain was a senior member of Commerce Committee, the Senate committee with oversight over the merger. As we saw with Rep. Clyburn, the tobacco industry was involved also. Philip Morris contributed $25,000 back in 1995, near the beginning of McCain’s tenure. The tobacco giant’s later actions make clear the game being played with these corporate contributions:

But at least one donor apparently saw it differently — Philip Morris stopped giving to the institute after Mr. McCain began urging stronger tobacco regulation — and many had an interest in issues before Congress.

Disclosure of donations to organizations like the International Republican Institute or the Clyburn Endowment is essential for citizens to maintain a full picture of who is gaining influence and access with their members of Congress. The same can be said about Presidential libraries, an issue only amplified by the recent revelations that a Bush administration official was offering access to foreign governments in exchange for contributions to President Bush’s future Presidential library.

While there is no immediate bill in Congress to redress the lack of disclosure to these nonprofits and outside organizations affiliated with lawmakers, there is at least a bill that would require the disclosure of contributions to Presidential libraries. That’s a good start, but not nearly sufficient in trying to knot together all the ties that bind in the world of influence in Washington.

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  • The Times piece missed an important opportunity to provide readers with an informative, balanced story about the work of the International Republican Institute under Senator McCain’s leadership.

    If the Times had contacted participants in the Institute’s activities, such as Ukrainian President Yushchenko, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, or any of the other 14 individuals provided by IRI to the Times, it would have given a more informed description of the Institute’s activities. The article includes at least two factual errors; Senator McCain is the second, not the first, sitting member of Congress to serve as IRI’s chairman, and Richard Williamson has never lobbied for AT&T.

    Neither IRI’s president nor anyone else at IRI has ever been asked by a donor for access – or helped in getting access – to Senator McCain. Similarly, neither IRI’s president nor anyone else at IRI has ever been asked about Senator McCain’s stance by donors on their issues, or ever talked to Senator McCain about issues that donors may have.