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Have Fun — But Disclose

We don’t share The Washington Post’s horror at the idea that Republican leaders such as Rep. Tom DeLay (Texas) and Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.) would use charities as a vehicle for collecting huge sums of money from corporations so that their executives and lobbyists can schmooze with Members at next year’s Republican National Convention. The Post called it “stomach churning.” We say: “Enjoy yourselves — but disclose everything, and promptly.”

As Roll Call reported on Nov. 13, the ingenious DeLay has responded to the new ban on soft money by creating a nonprofit, Celebrations for Children Inc., that will collect donations of up to $500,000 and allow contributors to attend fancy private dinners with DeLay and other lawmakers, play golf at a prestigious country club, attend Broadway shows and have access to a luxury hospitality suite on the night that President Bush is nominated. Frist is asking for up to $250,000 from potential sponsors for a concert benefiting AIDS treatment programs.

In the soft-money era, such events would have benefited the Republican National Committee or one of its subordinate subcommittees. With soft money banned under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, at least some of the proceeds will go to charity — in DeLay’s case, $1 million for various children’s charities. What’s better: lavish networking and influence-peddling to buy campaign ads or to help the needy? We are not offended. Big-shot schmoozing always goes on at conventions. Somebody was going to pay for it. We just want all the transactions disclosed.

At present, DeLay refuses to disclose anything, and he is not required to do so by law. But there is a precedent for disclosure —a charitable entity, the Good Neighbor Partnership Fund set up at the time of the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia by Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.). The fund raised more than $700,000 from about 40 corporations and trade associations — all of which were voluntarily named by the fund.

There are two things that the public has a reasonable right to know: Who gave all this money, and how much actually went to charity? Congress ought to pass a law requiring disclosure of contributions to charities closely associated with Members. These aren’t campaign contributions, but they are political contributions very definitely meant to curry favor. In the absence of a law, the Members and charities should disclose voluntarily. Disclosure is all the more appropriate because the donations are partly tax- deductible. The charities eventually will report their net receipts to the Internal Revenue Service, but not until 2005. So, we urge DeLay and Frist to follow the example of Santorum and Watts.

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