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Frist’s Charity Rakes in $3.5M

NEW YORK — More than 100 donations from dozens of the nation’s largest corporations and wealthy individuals fueled the $3.5 million fundraising drive by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) for the charity he launched last week.

Donors gave anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000 to World of Hope, a charity Frist established to provide funds to a half-dozen organizations involved in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The list of donors, which Frist’s office provided last week, reads like a who’s who of corporate leaders: 3M, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, GAP, Eli Lilly and Goldman Sachs, among others.

In what seems to be a growing trend, dozens of Members of Congress have become affiliated in some way with a charity, foundation or other nonprofit organization.

While government watchdogs believe that corporations and other big-money donors are giving to the charities as a way to curry favor with the sponsoring lawmaker, Frist vehemently defended his organization’s goals and asserted that there would be no benefit accruing to World of Hope contributors.

“The sponsors get absolutely nothing,” Frist said, adding that he considers it improper to question their motives.

“It’s interesting to me that people question the generosity,” he said. “To question the motivations of those sponsors is a little bit beyond me. … Any suggestion of influence is not in the cards.”

Contributors to World of Hope did at least gain access to Frist last week at the Republican National Convention. They were invited to a private luncheon with him on Wednesday, at which he handed out $500,000 checks from the charity to six organizations that are fighting the deadly disease.

Contributors also received tickets to the Brooks and Dunn concert hosted by the charity in Rockefeller Center’s plaza Wednesday night. The concert also included an appearance by U2 lead singer Bono, who has worked with Frist on the issue of AIDS funding for sub-Saharan Africa.

Frist’s charity is more transparent than many nonprofits affiliated with lawmakers. It reveals who has given money, even though such disclosure is not required by law. The average donation was about $35,000.

While Frist aides would only reveal the range of donations, rather than the specific amounts given by each donor, many other nonprofits associated with Members don’t even reveal who their donors are.

The Ted Stevens Foundation, for example, created earlier this year by former aides to the Appropriations chairman who are now lobbyists, raised more than $2 million but did not list individuals who specifically gave to the group. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) does not reveal who gives to the several charities he is affiliated with. First lady Laura Bush is associated with a foundation benefiting public libraries that intends to raise more than $20 million, but her group only publicizes who the biggest donors are.

Frist’s foundation is also restricted in ways that the Stevens foundation is not. Because the Majority Leader is directly involved in World of Hope — as compared with Stevens and Bush, for example, who hold no official roles in their groups despite attending fundraising dinners and meeting with donors — Frist cannot solicit money for his charity from registered lobbyists under Senate ethics rules.

But the corporations whose lobbyists regularly work the halls of Congress were big givers to Frist’s World of Hope, particularly companies in the health care industry.

In addition to Eli Lilly and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, other top givers from the health care industry included Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck & Co., Pfizer, the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America and Wyeth.

Frist, whose top political fundraisers have also been involved in raising money for the charity since October 2003, said he would probably continue to raise money for World of Hope and continue giving money to organizations fighting AIDS.

“I likely will keep it over a period of time,” he said.

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