Why don’t lawmakers disclose nonprofits and charities they are affiliated with?

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Last year the New York Times ran an article on the corporate donations to charities associated with members of Congress. The article showed that corporate and lobbyist donations are able to flow in unlimited sums to the favored causes of specific lawmakers, including to charities bearing the name of the lawmaker. This provides another conduit for influence seeking that falls outside of this normally regulated and disclosed realm. It seems odd that members of Congress do not have to disclose on their financial disclosure reports the non-profits and charities that they are associated with.

Only three of the twenty-one lawmakers mentioned in the New York Times article actually disclosed their association with the charity or non-profit affiliated with them. A further search of contribution records found another six lawmaker affiliated nonprofits, none of which were disclosed by the affiliated lawmaker. This may be due to an oversight in financial disclosure reporting rules. The official rules state:

The identity of all positions held … as an officer, director, trustee, partner, proprietor, representative, employee, or consultant of any corporation, company, firm, partnership, or other business enterprise, any nonprofit organization, any labor organization, or any education or other institution other than the United States. This subparagraph shall not require the reporting of positions held in any religious, social, fraternal, or political entity and positions solely of an honorary nature.

This rule only covers obvious conflicts that should be disclosed. It leaves a series of other conflicts out that the New York Times article helps to illuminate including contributions to organizations that a lawmaker founded or are run by family members. This disclosure rule should go as far as influence does by requiring the disclosure of all charities affiliated with lawmakers and their immediate family.

There is a clear connection between these charitable donations of corporations to these organizations and their attempts to gain access and influence lawmaker activity. The New York Times article quoted a spokesman for Duke Energy on his company’s contributions to these charities:

Tom Williams, a spokesman for Duke Energy, acknowledged that the company participates in lawmakers’ charitable events in part to get access to them and push its agenda. “We are not apologetic about it at all: it is part of our overall effort to work with policy makers,” he said. “Social settings are always a good way to get to know people.”

Lawmakers should be required to disclose nonprofits and charities that are affiliated with them even if they do not sit on the board or hold honorary titles. If companies are going out of their way to contribute and list these lawmakers as honorees then lawmakers should have to disclose these affiliations on their annual financial disclosure reports. It seems completely off-base that Rep. Jim Clyburn does not disclose his affiliation with the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation or that Rep. Nick Rahall does not disclose his relationship with the Rahall Transportation Institute.

Furthermore, lawmakers should be required to disclose the affiliations their spouse holds with nonprofits or charities. Huntington Bancshares reports a contribution of $5,000 to the Community Foundation of West Chester-Libery in honor of Rep. John Boehner. No where are we informed that Boehner’s wife serves on a committee at the foundation. These kinds of relationships should be disclosed.

There is currently one way to track the contributions made by corporations and individuals to charities on behalf of members of Congress. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 required new disclosure filings regarding contributions made to lawmakers and on behalf of or in honor of lawmakers.

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