March 11, 2013

Spoiler Alert: House of Cards Reveals Corrupt Nexus of Politicians and Charities

By CREW Staff

Bloody fingersLast month, Netflix debuted House of Cards, a fictional take on the dark side of power in Washington, DC.  Though the show has apparently become “a minor cultural zeitgeist among Hill staffers and journalists,” some in D.C. are questioning whether it accurately depicts the realities of Washington.  One element of the show’s story, however, rings true.

House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) ruthlessly sets out to undermine a new presidential administration after he is passed over for secretary of state.  Underwood’s machinations are aided and abetted by his wife Claire, the head of a high-profile environmental non-profit, who uses her charity to boost her husband’s political ambitions.  For instance, a major natural gas company whose chief lobbyist used to work for Francis had promised a major donation to Claire’s organization with the expectation that her congressman husband would pull strings for the company once he became secretary of state.  The relationship between the Underwoods and the gas company may appear so brazenly corrupt that it could only have been conjured by a Hollywood screenwriter, but unfortunately, it’s all too common.

Take Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), for example.  In March 2011, CREW found nine companies that contributed to Gov. Jindal’s campaign also had collectively pledged $790,000 to a charitable foundation headed by First Lady Supriya Jindal.  Combined, eight of those companies received at least $113.6 million in payments from the state between 2008 and 2011, and many had issues pending before the governor.  The Jindals, of course, aren’t the only politicians playing this game.  A children’s charity founded by disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and his wife raised millions of dollars from big companies and corporate executives, including companies that routinely lobbied Congress.  The charity folded in 2010, as former Rep. DeLay faced criminal charges.  In addition, in 2010, the New York Times “found at least two dozen charities that lawmakers or their families helped create or run that routinely accept donations from businesses seeking to influence them.” 

Exploiting family ties isn’t the only way charities are used to exert influence in Washington.  Another common practice is for corporations to make charitable donations to charity in honor of lawmakers and other public officials. Indeed, this practice was also highlighted in House of Cards when the same gas company that had promised to donate to Claire Underwood’s charity financed a library named for Francis Underwood.  Just last week, CREW’s research found that in 2012, Google donated $25,000 to a non-profit in honor of Federal Trade Commission (FTC) chairman Jon Leibowitz.  Not only does Google have regulatory interests before the FTC, but the commission was actively investigating the company for antitrust violations at the time of the donation.  A spokesman for the FTC said that Chairman Leibowitz had no knowledge of Google’s involvement in the dinner honoring him, but it still “really looks terrible,” as CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan told Bloomberg.  

Contributions such as Google’s are so routine that companies that lobby must file special disclosure forms listing them.  In 2011, CREW found AT&T had given $1.24 million to charities in honor of members of Congress and organizations affiliated with them between 2008 and 2010. In a new examination of AT&T’s 2011 and 2012 charitable donations, CREW found AT&T gave roughly $750,000 to charities in honor of members of Congress and organizations affiliated with them.  Three of the charities AT&T contributed to have direct ties to individual members of Congress or their families: the James E. Clyburn Research & Scholarship Foundation ($60,000), the Joe Baca Foundation ($12,000), and the Joe Barton Family Foundation ($5,000).   AT&T also directed donations to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in honor of Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) and Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), presumably to help fund their official portraits.

We’ll look forward to seeing what other shady Washington practices House of Cards exposes next season.

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