Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Buyer Supporting a Fake Charity

Congressman Steve Buyer is hip deep in supporting the Frontier Foundation, a charity whose mission is to provide scholarships for deserving Indiana students, but which has spent nothing on that mission since its inception in 2004; while it has managed to provide money for travel and food to assist in its fundraising.

Thanks to Jon Easter over at IndyDemocrat for bringing forward today, an expose' from the Journal & Courier of Lafayette, Indiana, by reporter David Smith - Rep. Buyer-linked foundation draws attention. This report evolved out of a report by USA Today (an IndyStar sister paper) titled Lobbyists unlimited in honoring lawmakers, which reported on the largess bestowed on charities with ties to Congressmen, and which exposed the Buyer / Frontier Foundation / lobbyist largess link. Sandra Chapman at Channel 13 (an IndyStar local sister media outlet) reported on Buyer's Foundation just last night, and other blogs have picked this story up, including MassonsBlog entries going back to June, 2009 (here, here, and here), TalkingPointsMemo, and now BlueIndiana, which links to Chapman's report. Will the Star be next?

Starting it all, USA Today reported:

Under ethics rules passed in 2007, lobbyists for the first time last year had to report any payment made for an event or to a group connected to a lawmaker and other top federal officials.

USA TODAY undertook the first comprehensive analysis of the lobbying reports and found 2,759 payments, totaling $35.8 million, were made in 2008. The money went to honor 534 current and former lawmakers, almost 250 other federal officials and more than 100 groups, many of which count lawmakers among their members.

The total cost is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. government spends to operate Yellowstone National Park each year.

Most of the money — about $28 million — went to non-profit groups, some with direct ties to members of Congress. In two cases, USA TODAY found, the donations to non-profits associated with a member of Congress came in response to a personal appeal for funds from the lawmaker.

Of Buyer's Frontier Foundation, Inc., in particular they reported:
Amgen also donated to the Frontier Foundation in honor of Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who is on the House panel that regulates the drug industry. The foundation, which provides college scholarships and once was headed by Buyer's daughter, received $385,000 in donations from pharmaceutical companies from 2005 through 2007, according to its IRS filings.

Buyer, who has worked on health policy in Congress for years, helped kill a provision in 2007 opposed by drug companies and broadcasters that would have imposed a three-year ban on advertising new drugs, congressional records show. Consumer advocates, including the Consumers Union, pushed the measure, arguing that aggressive drug pitches unduly sway patients to seek treatment from drugs before their safety records have been established.

During debate by a Commerce subcommittee, Buyer co-sponsored an amendment that stripped the advertising ban from a larger bill overhauling the Food and Drug Administration.

In an interview, Buyer said "there is no connection" between his legislative actions and donations to the foundation. "I'm not an officer. I'm not a board director," he said of his role in the non-profit. "Do I help the foundation? Yes, I do. Do I help other charity groups? Yes, I do." He referred other questions to foundation officials.

The charity's IRS filing covering the year 2007, the most recent available, listed Buyer's daughter, Colleen, as its unpaid president. Stephanie Mattix, listed as the group's paid secretary/treasurer, is executive director of Buyer's political action committee, Storm Chasers, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Mattix and Buyer told USA TODAY that Colleen Buyer had left the group and referred questions to its president, Brenda Olthoff. Olthoff did not respond to e-mails and calls. Colleen Buyer did not return telephone calls.

The National Association of Broadcasters contributed $25,000 in honor of Buyer to the foundation last year. Amgen donated $15,000. "I don't think there is a link between a specific vote on drug legislation and contributing to kids going to college in Indiana," says Dennis Wharton, the broadcasters' executive vice president. "We look at where we think it's a worthy cause." Davenport, Amgen's spokeswoman, says the gift matched the company's "philanthropic mission to improve education."

David Smith, Journal & Courier, brought out the twist that Frontier Foundation hasn't actually spent any of its money on the scholarships that are purported to be at the heart of their mission:

A nonprofit foundation associated with Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Monticello, has been
quietly collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for the primary purpose of helping students pay for college.

But the foundation, which enjoys tax-exempt status, has yet to award its first scholarship after six years in existence.

Until this year, the operations of the Frontier Foundation operated under the public radar. People in Monticello's Twin Lakes High School, which keeps a file of scholarship resources from 55 local organizations, had not heard of it.

Information about Frontier Foundation emerged in the limelight earlier this year, triggered by a 2007 federal law that required companies to report, for the first time, contributions made in honor of members of Congress.

USA Today went through the documents and compiled a list of who received the most in honorary donations in 2008.

Buyer was 13th on the list with $192,225. Two of those donations, totaling $35,000, went to the Frontier Foundation.

Frontier Foundation's donations over the years have come primarily from organizations with stakes in legislation moving through committees on which Buyer sits.

Those include the pharmaceutical, health insurance and tobacco industries -- which have a stake in bills that go through the House Subcommittee on Health -- and the telecommunications industry. Bills affecting the latter go through the House Subcommittee on Communications, telecommunications and the Internet.

Attempts to reach Buyer for comment were unsuccessful. His press secretary referred questions to Frontier Foundation and said there was no connection between Buyer and the foundation.

"It's not Congressman Buyer's foundation," press secretary Anjulen Anderson said.

Buyer has several indirect connections, however. The foundation shares an office with his district office in Monticello, or at least did as of June 8, 2009, when it filed its most recent IRS Form 990 tax report. The Form 990 is an annual report certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file.

That report listed Buyer's daughter, Colleen Buyer, as president, and his finance director, Stephanie Mattix, as secretary-treasurer.

I took a look at the IRS Form 990s available at GuideStar.org, and found some more interesting information. In 2008, the Frontier Foundation, Inc., took in $117,633 and spent $63,711. Of the money spent, $55,827 is listed as 'Disbursement's for charitable purposes'. Of that, $16,411 went for salaries (not bad), $7,114 for fundraising expense, $52 for postage, $3,822 for meals, and a whopping $22,002 for travel for fundraising. Now $600 was spent on some awards, but no scholarships.

Back to David Smith's report:
In July 2004, Frontier Foundation Inc. sent out a letter, from Buyer's office, soliciting donations of $25,000 for each foursome at an Aug. 31, 2004, outing at Fenway Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. Buyer's name was listed at the top as "honorary chairman." His daughter, Colleen, was listed as a board member.

So, who knows if the 2008 expenses were for a golf outing. But, it is outrageous that a slush fund for travel and food expenses can continue to masquerade as a charity to support Indiana scholars. We need to overhaul our campaign finance laws and plug the loopholes that allow these obvious frauds from being perpetrated to buy votes in Congress.

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