Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s AIDS charity paid nearly a half-million dollars in consulting fees to members of his political inner circle, according to tax returns that provide the first financial accounting of the presidential hopeful’s nonprofit.
The returns for World of Hope Inc., obtained by the Associated Press, also show the charity raised almost all of its $4.4 million from just 18 sources. The donors gave between $97,950 and $267,735 each to help fund the Tennessee Republican’s efforts to fight AIDS.
The tax forms do not identify the 18 major donors by name.
Mr. Frist’s attorney, Alex Vogel, said Friday that he would not make their names public because tax law does not require their public disclosure. Mr. Frist’s office provided a list of 96 donors who supported the charity, but it did not say how much each contributed.
The donors included several corporations with frequent business before Congress, such as insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield, manufacturer 3M, drug maker Eli Lilly and the Goldman Sachs investment firm.
World of Hope gave $3 million it raised to charitable AIDS causes, such as Africare and evangelical Christian groups with ties to Republicans — Franklin Graham’s Samaritan Purse and the Rev. Luis Cortes’ Esperanza USA, for example.
The rest of the money, which went to overhead, included $456,125 in consulting fees to two firms run by Mr. Frist’s longtime political fundraiser, Linus Catignani. Linda Bond, the wife of Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, jointly runs one of the firms.
The charity also hired the law firm of Mr. Vogel’s wife, Jill Holtzman Vogel, and Mr. Frist’s Tennessee accountant, Deborah Kolarich.
Miss Kolarich’s name recently surfaced in an e-mail message involving Mr. Frist’s sale of stock in his family-founded health care company. That transaction is now under federal investigation.
Mr. Vogel said Mr. Frist picked people to work on his charity whom he trusted and knew and was proud that overhead costs amounted to less than $1 of every $5 raised. “It’s leaner than the average charity,” he said.
Mr. Frist is listed as the charity’s president and his wife as secretary. Neither was compensated.
Political specialists said the totals of both the charity’s donations and its consulting fees raise questions about whether the tax-exempt group benefited Mr. Frist’s political ambitions.
“One of the things people who are running for president try to do is keep their fundraising staff and political people close at hand, and one of the ways you can do that is by putting them in some sort of organization you run,” said Larry Noble, the government’s former chief election lawyer. He now runs the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies fundraising.
Kent Cooper, the Federal Election Commission’s former public-disclosure chief, said the big donors’ motives also are suspect.
“These tax-deductible gifts were earmarked through Senator Frist,” Mr. Cooper said. “They were raised in the political arena at the 2004 Republican Convention, and the natural question is: Were they given to the Senate majority leader to gain favor, or were they given for true charitable purposes?”
Mr. Cooper said the consulting fees were “excessively high,” and the fact that they were “paid to primarily political consultants also raises questions about the long-range strategic benefits for the 2008 presidential race.”
A charity could lose its tax-exempt status if it is found to be involved with political activity, said Marcus S. Owens, a former director of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-exempt organizations division.
“If the IRS were to conduct an examination, what they would look for would be the relationship between the organization and any incumbent politician or candidate,” Mr. Owens said. “They’d be particularly interested in transactions of money or assistance of any kind being provided.”
Mr. Frist formed the charity in 2003. The group’s 2004 tax return was due April 15, but it filed for two extensions and reported its activity to the IRS only last month.