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Corporations Seek Favor from Lawmakers Through Donations to Their Charities

Loopholes riddle campaign finance laws and ethics rules in Washington, but the widest may be the one governing corporate donations to the charities of lawmakers. Thanks to a provision that allows businesses to make unlimited gifts to foundations run or founded by members of Congress, the New York Times reports that companies often give sums of money far larger than they are permitted to donate to lawmakers’ campaigns — though the money serves a similar purpose.

A review by The New York Times of federal tax records and House and Senate disclosure reports found at least two dozen charities that lawmakers or their families helped create or run that routinely accept donations from businesses seeking to influence them. The sponsors — AT&T, Chevron, General Dynamics, Morgan Stanley, Eli Lilly and dozens of others — contribute millions of dollars annually in gifts ranging from token amounts to a check for $5 million.

Since 2009, businesses have sent lobbyists and executives to the plush Boulders resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a fund-raiser for the scholarship fund of Representative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana; sponsored a skeet shooting competition in Florida to help the favorite food bank of Representative Allen Boyd, Democrat of Florida; and subsidized a spa and speedway outing in Las Vegas to aid the charity of Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada.

Just last month, they touted their largess with flags bearing their names near the tees at a golf tournament benefiting the foundation of Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina.

While the donations can’t be used by lawmakers to directly influence their reelection, the money often get funneled into their state or district in various forms, like scholarships, that benefit their constituents. Likewise, while many business executives claim they simply want to benefit a good cause, their contributions — which are sometimes not disclosed — often end up benefiting their corporations as well:

Altria, the cigarette maker, for example, sent at least $45,000 in donations over a six-week period last fall to four charitable programs founded by House members — including Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, and Mr. Clyburn, the Democratic whip — just as the company was seeking approval of legislation intended to curb illegal Internet sales of its cigarettes. An Altria spokesman said the donations were not related to the measure, which all four congressmen backed. (The other two are Mr. Boyd and Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan.)

Twice last year the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated lawmakers’ charities, but in each case it ultimately took no action. This was in no small part due to the fact that the House granted waivers exempting the politicians in question from prohibitions against receiving donations from companies with business before their committees.

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