Monday, June 13, 2005

Charities fined for failure to disclose smoking ban expenditures

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:08 AM |  

The Washington state Public Disclosure Commission approved a $3,500 fine against the American Cancer society for failure to report the money it spent on ads “and other so-called ‘grass-roots lobbying’ intended to generate support for smoking ban proposals."
According to a report from the commission’s staff, “the violations are significant,” since the $64,200 the commission spent pushing the smoking ban wasn’t disclosed until after the 2004 legislative session ended. That means people watching the ads – some of which featured former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop urging them to ask their legislators to support the ban – didn’t know who was paying for them.

The smoking ban proposals, which would have prohibited smoking in bars, restaurants and most other non-tribal businesses, failed. An initiative that would have done the same thing failed to make the ballot last year, though a similar one this year appears more likely to make the Nov. 8 ballot, thanks in part to nearly $600,000 in backing from the Cancer Society.

But the society has also missed deadlines for reporting its contributions to the initiative this year, according to the commission’s report. As part of the agreement approved Thursday, if the society commits another violation or fails to meet other conditions, it will trigger an additional $4,000 in fines.
The commission also fined the American Heart Association $400 for missing deadlines to report nearly $15,000 it spent pushing the smoking bans. It fined Breathe Easy Washington, the group that pushed last year’s failed smoking ban initiative, $400 for missing deadlines to report $8,500 in contributions it received last year.

Significant in the report is the extent of support by these organizations, which rely on charitable donations, in terms of effort and dollars -- $600,000 from the American Cancer Society in a single state. Such expenditures on political issues by groups that collect money “in hopes of finding a cure” is more than a little misleading if not downright unethical.

Such actions have prompted a New York organization of business owners (New York has a smoking ban in bars and restaurants) to ask business owners to withold donations to the American Cancer Scoiety, American Lung Association and the American Heart Association. From a May 11 press release --
At issue is the charities' relentless pursuit of smoking bans in city and state legislatures all across the country -- ban legislation that the charities themselves very frequently help to write and then promote to the general public. Strongly noted too is that by using their tax-deductible donations for lobbying for legislation they are teetering on the edge of violating the IRS code for charitable organizations.

Clearly, businesses that hold fundraisers for, and citizens who donate to, these health organizations are giving to groups that then use that money to destroy and attack them.

"No more," says Audrey Silk, founder of NYC C.L.A.S.H. (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment). "We will stop contributing to Big Nanny. Why do we want to donate to groups that are out to ruin our businesses and demean us as human beings?"

Jim Avolt, a spokesman for an Ohio business group that's part of the alliance rates it even lower than that. He points out, "I feel the ACS, the ALA and the AHA should all lose their non-profit status. They were significant financial donors to the pro-ban forces at work in Toledo. And the irony of it was," Avolt continues, "they were using the same money we'd given them in donations and just handing it right over to our political opponents."

This boycott will continue indefinitely, with more groups and private citizens expected to join in.But it doesn't mean that members of the alliance won't continue to donate -- just not to those charities.

There are thousands of worthy ones out there and they'll be the recipients of contributions instead. Charities like Make-A-Wish Foundation, Mary Crowley Medical Research Center, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Shriners Hospital for Children are just a few of the favorites, as are people in dire medical need in each of our own local areas.

The alliance agrees that cancer and heart disease research will not suffer by donating to other same goal charities -- and maybe the trampling of our country's treasured private property rights and the right to be left alone will subside.
I am not a supporter of organized economic boycotts, but in this case, it certainly makes sense for business onwers not to contribute to groups that are, without regard, causing them economic harm. For others, it just makes sense to evaluate why one contributes to a charitiable organization and whether or not that organization is spending its resources to advance the goals that motivate contributions.