| Jesse Helms's honeypot;
Jesse Helms' nonprofit organization mainly elicits money
July 20, 1998
By: Baker, Russ
In his early days Senator Jesse Helms railed against
nonprofit organizations and how they were used to divert otherwise taxable
income to outrageous and unworthy--by which he clearly meant liberal--projects.
Times certainly have changed. Today Helms has his own nonprofit
organization--one that collects vast sums confidentially from corporations that
have business before the Senate committees he chairs or dominates.
The Helms Center, based at Wingate University in a small town in Helms's home
state of North Carolina, would pass almost no test of altruistic purpose,
educational integrity or any other reasonable benchmark for charitable
enterprises. Currently there is little more in the center's "museum"
than a collection of mementos from the Senator's long career--a "Jesse
Helms, Commander, Afghan Freedom Fighters" sweatshirt; birthday greetings
from Presidents; and a huge red "No" rubber stamp lying on a replica
of the Senator's Washington desk. The remaining aspects of the center include an
untouched "archive" of Senator Helms's papers, a speaker's series
bringing two political figures a year to the Wingate campus and a conference
teaching high school students the winning ways of capitalism.
Indeed, it's not clear what the center's purpose is even for Senator Helms
himself: a way of keeping his name before the public, a source of jobs for
political friends and relatives, a backdoor method of raising campaign money or
a cozy spot to which he can retire. What is clear, however, is that the Helms
Center is an example of the increasing use of nonprofits by politicians for
dubious ends. "Campaign finance reform will never work unless the ties
between politicians and their 501(c)(3) nonprofits are broken," says Gary
Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. "It's a
At the end of 1996, the last year for which figures are available, the center
had net assets of $ 6.2 million, compared with $ 3.8 million at the beginning of
1995. In 1996 the center took in $ 1.3 million and spent about $ 350,000. It
declines to give the names of its supporters, who are solicited as if the whole
thing were a real estate trust. ("Funding is private and you have many
opportunities for investment," declares a new fundraising video.) In fact,
contributors aren't always very concerned about the center's actual purpose.
"Many of the corporations care not at all about the programs and goals of
the center," observed one board member, a former RJ Reynolds tobacco
executive, at a meeting some years back.
The Nation phoned dozens of large companies, and virtually every one declined to
say whether it had given to the Helms Center. Nevertheless, over the past few
years, various donation amounts have surfaced, and they are huge--dwarfing the
federal campaign limit per election of $ 5,000 in PAC contributions and $ 1,000
in individual gifts.
In one year alone, Philip Morris gave the Helms Center $ 200,000. Other
single-year amounts include $ 100,000 from the United States Tobacco Company and
a staggering $ 750,000 from RJ Reynolds--on behalf of a senator who has been
perhaps the industry's most vigorous advocate as senior member of the
Agriculture Committee and other panels.
Other big donors include textile companies Milliken (its chairman, the
archconservative Roger Milliken, is on the Helms Center board) and Burlington
Industries; Du Pont; and the federal corporate felon Archer Daniels Midland.
North Carolina banks have pumped in hundreds of thousands, perhaps for the
interactive displays on the North Carolina banking industry planned for a Free
Enterprise Center to be opened in an annex next door to the Helms Center. Two
companies that get high marks for unusual candor were the Brown & Williamson
tobacco company, whose spokesman confirmed donations but not amounts, and the
drug giant Glaxo Wellcome, which told The Nation that it has pledged $ 150,000
over three years for the Free Enterprise Center.
Equally enamored of the center are foreign powers that: are legally prevented
from donating to political campaigns. A year after Helms, chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, threw his enthusiastic support behind the Gulf War,
Kuwait presented the center with $ 100,000. The center was so hopeful of foreign
support that in 1992 it agreed to pay board member Howard Segermark a commission
to solicit money from "non-U.S. citizens, foundations, and
corporations." In 1993 the Taiwanese government gave $ 225,000; a former
staffer told the Washington Post that the donation followed a conversation
between the senator and a high-ranking Taiwanese official. (John Dodd, who
became center president in 1994, says he put a stop to accepting foreign money.)
Recently an official of the Singaporean government beat a path to Wingate to
participate in a Helms Center function.
A donor who gives generously to the foundation may find his access to the
senator considerably enhanced. On a Helms Center fundraising list, next to the
name of United States Tobacco, a note reads, "Need to set up through
Senator Helms' office." Next to the name of Universal Leaf Tobacco is
written, "Need to facilitate activity through Senator Helms." Helms's
campaign efforts may also benefit. For example, a board member received payments
from the Helms campaign for "airfare" during the last election.
Far from its promise to be (in the words of its mission statement) "an
independent, non-profit organization established to further the principles of
democracy, the free enterprise system and moral values," the Helms Center
scores only on the middle point. "To a great extent, the free enterprise
system is freedom," explained center president Dodd during a visit from The
Nation. The center's educational mainstay is a Free Enterprise Leadership
Conference, where high school students hear from Helms's business cronies and
learn to manage fictional corporations. For further information on capitalism,
schoolchildren can visit the "museum," which opened in a stately house
in 1994, and help themselves to piles of brochures from the corporate-funded,
anti-union National Right to Work Committee. This year an archive will open on
land next to the museum. According to former center archivist Jack Ralston (who
was let go several years ago) Helms's papers, long boxed up on a landing in the
Wingate University library, reveal little about what really goes on in Congress.
"There were letters from constituents complaining about the weather or they
weren't getting enough on their peanut crops," he recalls.
With its peculiar combination of business boosterism, Helmsgilding and
programmatic junk food, the center stands apart from several other nonprofits
dedicated to former and current Southern senators, and perhaps explains the
increasingly arm's-length relationship with the university of which it is, on
paper, a part. Helms Center documents state that Helms's senatorial papers are
"owned" by Wingate University but managed by the center, which was
originally to be on campus but eventually opened several blocks away. This
arrangement contrasts sharply with the picture painted by university officials
in the late eighties, when the Helms Center Foundation was gearing up. Arts and
sciences dean Jerry Surratt recalls that dubious faculty were assured the center
would emulate the respected Richard Russell Library for Political Research and
Studies, which forms an integral research division of the University of
Georgia's library system. In reality the Helms Center doesn't follow that model
any more than it resembles the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public
Affairs at Clemson University--also tied to a standing senator--which contains
both a research institute staffed by economics, political science, and sociology
faculty, and a library mn by a professional archivist. Funding for the Thurmond
institute comes from conservative private foundations (Annenberg and DeWitt
Wallace) and government funds (the State of South Carolina, NASA and the
National Endowment for the Arts), and it addresses serious research
topics--population and retirement trends, community economic development, etc.
Although the Helms Center board includes several Wingate officials as
figureheads, a quick look at the collective mug shots suggests what's really
going on. At various times, the fifteen-member board has included the senator's
wife, his daughter, a current Hill staffer and a former legislative assistant,
two campaign treasurers and several large campaign donors. Helms's daughter is
currently the vice chairwoman, and the chief of staff of the Senate Foreign
Relations committee, Adm. James "Bud" Nance, retired, is board
secretary. The staff is also not of conventional nonprofit caliber. Dodd, the
center's president, previously ran a political fundraising firm in northern
Virginia and worked on Helms campaigns. Estelle Snyder, the center's affable
publicity person, previously worked at Wingate.
It may be disheartening that almost any pathetic excuse for a charity can attain
nonprofit status, and that a powerful elected official can dance a deux in
private with corporations seeking to curry favor, but it should not be
surprising. So far, the tremendous growth of the charitable sector has not been
accompanied by much will to scrutinize it. And the IRS has only a handful of
inspectors to police thousands upon thousands of groups. True, a few operations
have been successfully targeted. For example, the American Campaign Academy, run
by Newt Gingrich's longtime adviser Joe Gaylord, lost its tax status in 1989
when the US Tax Court ruled that it was masquerading as purely educational when
it was all about training GOP operatives; and an earlier Helms nonprofit, the
Coalition for Freedom, was shut down by the IRS for running blatantly partisan
activities. But these are exceptions. Meanwhile, in a more typical case, Jack
Kemps conservative policy organization, Empower America, was granted tax-exempt
status by the IRS in December, reversing an earlier ruling that the group's
activities "substantially benefited the Republican Party and politicians
affiliated with the Republican Party." To qualify as
"nonpartisan," almost any shred of evidence was adequate--or example,
Empower America showed the IRS a videotape it had produced on education reform
that included Democratic Representative Charles Rangel, and an urban renewal
discussion that featured Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership
Council, and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman.
"Current law doesn't provide a very satisfactory way of sorting these
things out," says University of Miami law professor Frances Hill, an expert
on nonprofits and politics. One interesting development is a pending bill from
Representative Paul Gillmor, an Ohio Republican, that would require large,
publicly held companies to disclose their contributions to individual charities.
Ironically, supporters seem primarily intent on stopping companies from giving
to more liberal causes that do not advance corporate interests. So far a number
of corporations have begun lobbying against the bill. Meanwhile, other national
figures are setting up, or surely considering setting up, their own versions of
the Helms Center. Should Senator Al D'Amato win a squeaker fourth-term race, one
wonders what history lessons might be dispensed to schoolchildren wandering
through anal D'Amato Center for the Advancement of Civilization--and what
heretofore unthinkable mountains of cash might pass through it.
Russ Baker covers politics and media and is a contributing editor of The
American Benefactor magazine. Research assistance was provided by Sarah Gordon.