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Politicians and Their Self-Serving Charities

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, March 18, 2011

Not long ago, Republicans mounted their high horse over Charlie Rangel's ethical lapses. They had a right to. Among other questionable conduct, Rangel had solicited charitable donations from executives with business before the House Ways and Means Committee, which the New York Democrat chaired. The money's destination: The Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City University of New York.

Rangel was not alone in helping corporations do what may be end-runs around restrictions on campaign contributions or just plain influence peddling. Other politicians were tapping favor-seeking CEOs for their self-aggrandizing charities. Given the Rangel example, you'd think they'd cut it out.

But barely four moons since the U.S. House censured Rangel for this activity (among others), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been blatantly engaging in same. In his case, the goodies come courtesy of the state, not the federal government.

Oh, excuse me! The Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana's Children is not the governor's charity, it's his wife's. Does that make it OK? It does not.

AT&T wanted to sell cable TV services in Louisiana without having to deal with the parishes, according to a New York Times report. Done, after AT&T promised Supriya's foundation a nice $250,000 check. Marathon Oil wanted to raise the amount of oil it could refine at a Louisiana facility. It pledged $250,000, and its wish was Jindal's command. The list goes on. Corporations with regulatory issues in Louisiana have given the foundation almost $1 million.

Go ahead, insist that the contributions and the granted requests are all mere coincidences. Tell me another one. Should any would-be corporate giver miss the connection between the charity and getting the governor's attention, they need only visit the foundation's website, where Bobby poses in a photo with Supriya.

The Jindals' slippery empire of good works, if anything, breaks new grounds in audacity. Mrs. Jindal travels the state as lady bountiful, presenting free equipment at schools and gathering flattering news coverage at the stops. No doubt many beneficiaries see these gifts as the product of the Jindals' personal beneficence.

It is an axiom in American politics that the more outrageous the behavior, the more aggressive the official response. The governor's spokesman was naturally asked about any connection between the Jindal Foundation and the donors' dealings with the state. He told the Times that the charity reflected nothing more than the first lady's deep passion for helping children in science and math. He called doubters "partisan hacks living in a fantasy land." Interesting that the charity was established after Jindal was elected governor.

Of course, it's not just Charlie and Bobby. There's the Utah Families Foundation, established by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Filling the charity's coffers were drug companies wanting Hatch to blunt the federal government's demands for cheaper generic drugs, which he helped do.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, oversees the Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel. Cable giant Comcast is a generous funder, and Cummings would seem a generous giver-back. The charity wrote to the Federal Communications Commission, urging it to bless Comcast's merger with NBC. At least the letter noted that Comcast was a contributor.

As Republicans were unloading on Rangel last fall, conservative pundit Bill Kristol warned them on Fox News to "shut up." "Believe it," he said, "there have been congressmen from both parties who've been imperial, arrogant and have centers named after them and have met with donors to that center."

Kristol is entirely on the mark, except for the "shut up" part. No one, not Republicans, not Democrats, should be shutting up. Such abuses of public office only stoke the public's cynicism over government. The ultimate victim: our democracy.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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