The top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee operates a tax-exempt foundation that has raised donations from the industries his committee oversees, while giving less than a quarter of the foundation’s money to charitable causes, tax records show.
Rep. Joe L. Barton’s foundation spent more on staff, fundraising and other overhead from 2005 to 2007 - nearly $130,000 in all - than it did on its single $90,000 contribution to a charitable cause, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service filings. The congressman’s daughter-in-law runs the foundation as an unpaid executive director.
The Texan generated positive headlines for himself in his congressional district when he promised to use his foundation to raise as much as $900,000 to help build a local Boys and Girls Club and fund a Meals-on-Wheels program. Mr. Barton was honored for his commitment to philanthropy at a ceremony in November.
But records show that at the time the lawmaker made such pledges, his charity had never raised that kind of money.
In recent months, Mr. Barton and his foundation have been trying to fulfill their charitable pledges by taking credit when companies give directly to community groups in the foundation’s name - essentially bypassing a 2007 congressional requirement that donations from lobbying interests to lawmakers’ charities be disclosed.
The tactic has allowed Mr. Barton to raise money for his pet charitable causes from special interests with business before his House committee without the public’s knowledge.
“Members of Congress have redefined charitable giving as just another form of pay-to-play,” said Naomi Seligman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit ethics watchdog that has been examining the charities of political leaders like Mr. Barton.
“These charitable contributions allow those with special interests to both curry favor with lawmakers and look selfless, while pursuing a calculated, selfish agenda,” Ms. Seligman said. “By pressuring companies with business before his committee to make charitable contributions, and then making sure those donations cannot be tracked - but are still credited to his foundation - Mr. Barton has found a way to a new low in Washington. And that is saying something.”
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that monitors political corruption and corporate abuses in Texas, called the Barton foundation solicitations “an absolute conflict of interest.”
“Raising money for a foundation can be done very easily behind the scenes and outside the public’s view, and allows the special interest groups to court members of Congress for something they need,” he said. “And in this case, Joe Barton gets the public relations benefit of doling out the money.”
Mr. Barton’s press secretary, Sean Brown, described the fundraising as “perfectly legal and by the books.” He said those who take a cynical view of the good the foundation is doing “are probably predisposed to find fault with a lot of worthwhile efforts by members of Congress to improve the lives of people in their districts.”
“Congressman Barton´s willingness to use his name and reputation to benefit qualified charitable organizations that serve low-income and other underprivileged people instead of using that ability solely for political purposes should be commended and is not something the people of the 6th District of Texas are likely to criticize,” he said.
Mr. Barton, as a ranking member of an influential Washington committee, is hardly alone among lawmakers who have established, maintained or controlled a private foundation. Others include former President Bill Clinton; former Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican; Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican; and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.
The Barton Family Foundation was incorporated in Texas on April 5, 2005, and is recognized by the IRS as a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.