An ethics watchdog group called Monday for both Internal Revenue Service and ethics probes into a nonprofit foundation closely tied to Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), alleging the charity may have violated tax laws. But Buyer dismissed the complaint, stating that the House ethics committee has privately addressed the matter.
In separate filings to the IRS and the Office of Congressional Ethics, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington raised questions about the Indiana-based Frontier Foundation.
The complaints echo media reports indicating that the charity had raised approximately $800,000 since its inception in 2003, but has issued no scholarships — indicated in federal tax forms as the foundation’s primary purpose — and only a few thousand dollars in other gifts. Forms filed with the Indiana secretary of state indicate the foundation’s purposes also include providing “emergency relief to individuals.—
“Rep. Buyer appears to be using a charity allegedly created to benefit needy Indiana students, but that — astonishingly — has never helped a single young person attend college, as a vehicle to provide greater access and influence to those with business before the House Energy and Commerce Committee,— CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan wrote in the letter to the OCE.
Both CREW complaints note, as first reported by USA Today in June 2009 and other outlets in fall 2009, that nearly all donations to the foundation were provided by corporations with interests before the Energy and Commerce Committee — including the pharmaceutical, telecommunications, tobacco and alcohol, and health insurance industries — where Buyer is a member.
But in a statement issued Monday, Buyer dismissed the complaint, asserting that the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics committee, has privately addressed questions related to the charity.
“This complaint has been filed after the matter is already being resolved. CREW is a liberal, Democrat front group that has a reputation for using ethics allegations for political attacks,— Buyer said in a written statement. “Their complaint is a rehash of old news articles. Last fall, after reviewing this matter I sought guidance from the Standards Committee and this matter is already being resolved.—
A Buyer spokeswoman declined a request for details of the ethics committee’s recommendations.
A spokeswoman for the Frontier Foundation did not return a telephone call Monday seeking comment. Telephone numbers listed in IRS tax forms for the foundation were answered by Buyer’s campaign office.
In an October interview with the Indianapolis Star, Buyer also asserted that the foundation had raised its initial fundraising goal from $100,000 to $1 million, in an effort to create its own self-sustaining endowment, saying that was the reason for the dearth of scholarship awards.
Although Buyer acknowledged the foundation raised its funds through a series of charity golf events — held at upscale resorts in the Bahamas and Arizona and at Disney World — he asserted such events are necessary because “donors expect a meaningful experience,— he told the Star.
“I know someone else may look at that and go, Wow, he got to go on trips. He got to go to great places other people don’t get to see.’ But for me? It’s work,’— Buyer told the Star in October.
But in its complaint to the IRS, CREW cited those golf outings, calling for a review of whether the foundation paid for Buyer’s travel to the Bahamas or his greens fees within the United States, both potential violations of rules governing nonprofit organizations.
In addition, CREW called for a review of payments made to former foundation Treasurer Stephanie Mattix, who also served as campaign finance director.
“If Ms. Mattix’s objective while providing services to Frontier was Rep. Buyer’s reelection and not Frontier’s purported exempt purpose, any compensation to her from Frontier could be improper,— CREW’s complaint to the IRS states.
Mattix received $17,000 from the foundation in 2008, the most recent tax forms available.
Although Buyer’s daughter, Colleen Buyer, previously served as the foundation’s president, Mattix served as the only paid employee until August 2009. At that time, Sandra Danford replaced Mattix, according to numerous media reports.
Danford defended the foundation’s work in an October interview with Indianapolis NBC affiliate WTHR, stating: “I have a hard time with understanding why people want to attack someone who’s going to do good. I mean, in reality, this is truly hurting our students.—
It is not known whether either the IRS or OCE will pursue CREW’s complaints.
OCE, which is tasked with reviewing potential rules violations and recommending investigations to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, does not comment on specific complaints.