Nonprofits Benefited from Lawmakers’ Speaking Engagements

Posted June 21, 2012 at 11:41am

The United Way, D.A.R.E., the Holistic Life Foundation and the University of Indianapolis were among dozens of nonprofit organizations that benefited last year from a Congressional rule that requires lawmakers to direct speaking fees to charity.

A Roll Call review of annual financial disclosure reports shows at least 10 lawmakers gave a combined nearly $75,000 to 50 charitable organizations in 2011 under the rule, which bars them from accepting payment for engagements and other appearances but allows them to direct honoraria to a charity of their choice.

Though lawmakers can’t claim tax benefits for the contributions, which cannot exceed $2,000, the donations can serve as a valuable political tool for those facing tough re-election bids, allowing them to burnish their reputations with influential nonprofits and interact with constituents, key industries and potential donors.

Between May and September of last year, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican facing the toughest re-election fight of his career, made speeches to five organizations, including two of the health care industry’s most powerful players, the Medical Device Manufacturers Association and the American Hospital Association.

Hatch, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and a fierce opponent of the 2010 health care law, has received $10,000 in campaign contributions from the hospital trade group so far this cycle — more than any other Senator. He has also been a cheerleader for efforts to repeal a tax on medical device manufacturers, which the House passed earlier this month.

Hatch chose to divide the $9,000 in payments for the speeches among eight universities, including his alma maters Brigham Young University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, his office said. Hatch has long made a practice of giving speeches and directing the honoraria to charity — he has reported 26 paid speeches and nearly $50,000 in donations since 2009.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who is locked in a tight race with Democrat Elizabeth Warren, reported appearing at 40 lunches with constituents, who, in turn, contributed nearly $54,000 to charities in the Senator’s honor — more than any of the more than 125 lawmakers reviewed by Roll Call. Brown offered the lunches as auction items to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, Mount Auburn Hospital and Old Sturbridge Village, among dozens of other organizations, his office said.

Sen. Dick Lugar, a six-term moderate Indiana Republican who was ousted in a May primary by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, gave the $2,000 he earned for a February speech to the Cookie and Snack Bakers Association to the University of Indianapolis, according to a Lugar spokesman.

Republican lawmakers were more likely than Democrats to report paid speaking engagements, based on the financial disclosure reports reviewed. Among those disclosing honoraria were: Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Tom Petri (R-Wis.).

In 1989, Congress exempted itself from a provision in the tax code that would have required lawmakers to make charitable gifts given in their name part of their reported personal taxable income. Consequently, they can’t deduct the contributions. Lawmakers can choose any charity so long as they or family member do not directly benefit from the contribution.