Charity not only begins at home, but, apparently, in the light of lobbyist Jack Abramoff's recent guilty plea to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, corruption and tax fraud, charity begins in the House, Senate and Oval Office as well.
In what the Wall Street Journal is calling "an act of cosmetic distancing," at least 100 politicos, on both sides of the aisle, scrambled to shower, among others, the Red Cross, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, the Salvation Army, the Boy Scouts of America, the Boys & Girls Club, the South Carolina Anti-gambling Hot Line and the Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund, with approximately $430,000 in moolah tainted by Abramoff or his clients.
"These are political judgments rather than ethical judgments. If you are politically smart, you give it all back to try to get as far away from this scandal as you can," Steve Cohen, a political science professor at Columbia University, told The Associated Press. The real problem, according to Cohen, is that politics puts elected officials "in a type of bazaar, collecting money all the time. To survive politically, they're constantly in touch with rich people and moneyed interests."
While National Democratic Chairman Howard Dean was technically correct when he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer "no Democrat ever took money from Jack Abramoff," according to a Center for Responsive Politics' analysis of Federal Election Commission records, Dems hauled in approximately $1.4 million in Indian tribe money procured by Abramoff between 1998 and 2005.
While not one thin dime could be traced to Abramoff's personal checking account, five Democratic senators (including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton) laid nearly $37,000 on native American-related do-good nonprofits to avoid the perception of impropriety. Eight House Democrats, who received $15,000 in Indian tribe contributions, simply sent the cash back.
To be fair, it was mainly Republicans who benefited from the fundraisers Abramoff hosted in luxury skyboxes. It was mainly Republicans who jetted off on junkets to Scotland or the Super Bowl. It was mainly Republicans who counted on Abramoff to secure employment opportunities for family members. It was mainly Republicans who scarfed down $80,000 in free meals at Abramoff's Signatures restaurant. It was mainly Republicans whose war chests swelled with mucho dinero -- the checks signed either by Abramoff or his well-heeled customers.
And why not? Isn't the GOP unquestionably large and in charge in Washington? If it is true that "to the victor go the spoils," then it is likewise true that "to the spoilers goes the stink" -- when something rotten their way comes.
The good news is that campaign reformers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., introduced legislation that requires more transparency between lobbyists and members of Congress.
Still, nobody doubts that Abramoff money is dirty, dirty, dirty.
Along with sidekick Michael Scanlon (former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's spokesman), not only did Abramoff steer his clients to businesses that provided him with substantial kickbacks but in an effort to pile up even more dough, he also surreptitiously pitted one patron against another. On one occasion, he assisted the Coushatta Indian Tribe with closing a Tigua Tribe casino, and then promptly turned around and proffered his services to the same Tigua tribe, enticing them into paying him handsomely to resurrect their erstwhile gaming establishment.
OK, then, why would any charity be willing to recycle Abramoff's filthy lucre?
According to the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University, as long as it is legal for the donor to make the contribution, there should be no constraint on the charity accepting it.
"While I'm uncomfortable with the charges associated with the money," Salvation Army spokesperson Maj. George Hood told The Washington Post, "it truly is a practical case of turning lemons into lemonade." The Salvation Army raked in $16,500.
David W. Livingston of the American Heart Association, the recipient of $6,000 from the Bush-Cheney campaign, said: "Our position is, why would we not accept it? It is not an unlawful contribution, and when we're fighting the No. 1 and No. 3 biggest killers of Americans, why not? We're going to put that to good use."
With government funding being cut back, charities are being hard-pressed to turn away a nickel. Besides, a recent survey by the Association of Life Underwriters of Washington, D.C., reported that every dollar reaching the needy, if channeled through the federal government, actually ends up costing $3. With charitable organizations, on the other hand, 73 cents of every dollar goes directly to work.
According to an old Jewish proverb, "If charity cost nothing, the world would be full of philanthropists." If Washington is full of indictable lobbyists, however, charity can begin at