- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2008

Partisan tempers flared when Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, called Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer and conservative stalwart, to testify this week before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The subject was and is fair game if the allegations are true: claims of excessive administrative costs and inflated salaries at the San Diego-based charity Help Hospitalized Veterans, with which Mr. Viguerie is a direct-mail partner. But if the point of such a hearing was to show the truth of these accusations — and to judge by their harsh words, committee members surely seemed to believe them — it failed.

Help Hospitalized Veterans, headed by philanthropist Roger Chapin, delivers free therapeutic arts-and-crafts kits to convalescing veterans. It has received mixed marks on management and finances from rating agencies, including poor ones from the American Institute on Philanthropy (AIP), which disapproves of the group’s direct-mailing spending. But its ratings elsewhere are not appreciably different from most comparable charities. It performs as well as the Boy Scouts or YMCA in the ratings of the agency Charity Navigator, and better than the Special Olympics.

To hear the committee members, lawmakers must have only now discovered the lively debate within the philanthropic community over what proportion of adminstrative costs is too much. Help Hospitalized Veterans’ costs are high because it seeks small donors around the country to fund its activities — it does not rely on foundation money or a few well-heeled philanthropists. Other groups’ costs are low for a variety of other reasons. Donors who seek a charity that spends smaller proportions on fund-raising need only consult the AIP’s “Charity Watch” to find one. On four occasions, the Supreme Court has demurred, tolerating even “high cost” charitable fundraising, telling the federal government to steer clear of heavy-handed regulation. The rationales are grounded in the First Amendment, but also in the sheer diversity of charities, which choose among an equal diversity of fund-raising and management options. Donors, provided they are fully informed, vote with their pocketbooks and take their money elsewhere when they want to.

We’re therefore left wondering why an accounting debate at a veterans charity that performs comparably to others is a veterans-issues priority for a committee chairman. The chief difference seems to be that the charity has ties to the staunchly conservative Mr. Viguerie. If Mr. Waxman truly wants to help veterans, he should campaign on behalf of veterans’ health-care needs.

At least the partisan flare-up was entertaining. “I am here today at your so-called “invitation,’” Mr. Viguerie began his testimony. “I must say, this is the first invitation I’ve ever received from members of Congress that wasn’t for one of your fundraising events.” Touche.

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