Sour Charity

Ever conscious of political fashion, Rick Santorum wanted to demonstrate that he, too, was a “compassionate conservative” in 2000, when the Bush campaign popularized the phrase. Santorum helped sponsor the Good Neighbor Initiative, a fund-raising drive that netted $700,000, mostly from big corporations, to do good works in Philadelphia.

“When I found out the Republican convention was coming to Philadelphia, I thought: ‘Wouldn't it be a great thing to leave something positive behind other than a bunch of parties and a bunch of garbage?'” Santorum told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In 2001, he launched the Operation Good Neighbor Foundation. The charity, which seeks to award money to faith-based groups and other organizations that combat poverty and social ills like teen pregnancy, has a Web page loaded with photos of a smiling Santorum, posing with oversized checks and leaders of community groups. So far, according to the site, the Senator's charity has doled out $474,000.

But public records show that the group has raised considerably more than that since its inception in 2001.

A review of federal tax returns filed by the foundation for 2001, 2002, and 2003 shows that the charity spent just 35.9 percent of the nearly $1 million raised on its charitable grants, while spending 56.5 percent on expenses like salaries, fund-raising commissions, travel, conference costs, and rent. Charity experts say that charitable groups should spend at least 75 percent of their money on program grants, and that donors should beware of organizations that spend as little as Santorum's has.

“The majority of organizations are able to meet that 75 percent figure,” says Saundra Miniutti of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group. Without addressing Santorum's charity specifically, she noted that nonprofits spending in the range of just one-third on programs are “extremely inefficient.”

Moreover, the foundation is not registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State. A spokeswoman for the state agency said that any charity that solicits and raises more than $25,000 in Pennsylvania is required by law to register. Records included on the foundation's 2002 tax filing list $94,000 in donations from sources in the state. State law says that violators of the registration law run the risk of civil penalties and possible legal action by the state.

The list of 2002 donors -- displayed on a Web page marked “not open to public inspection” -- includes several major donors to Santorum's political campaign. Most notable is Philadelphia Trust Company, the same private bank that refinanced Santorum's Virginia home in 2002, which gave $10,000. The CEO of Philadelphia Trust, Michael Crofton, is chairman of the charity's board of advisers. The foundation also raised $25,000 from the PMA Foundation, the charitable arm of a risk-management firm in suburban Philadelphia; $25,000 from the suburban Philadelphia development firm Preferred Real Estate; and $10,000 from J. Brian O'Neill, the brother of that firm's founder and himself a developer. The charity also received $10,000 from the Keystone Sanitary Landfill, owned by Louis DeNaples, a controversial Scranton businessman who is fending off published allegations that he associates with organized-crime figures.

The donor list isn't the only overlap between Santorum's charity and his political operation. The charity's treasurer is Barbara Bonfiglio -- who works out of the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm of Williams and Jensen and serves as treasurer of the senator's leadership PAC, America's Foundation. Operation Good Neighbor also paid $50,000 in total salary in 2002 and 2003 to Rob Bickhart, Santorum's finance director, who is also the charity's executive director. It has paid $118,710 in fund-raising fees to Maria Diesel of Chester County, Pennsylvania, who also raises money for Santorum's political efforts.

Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a good-government group, questioned why Operation Good Neighbor would hire lobbyists and political operatives instead of charity professionals. “It looks like another pocket to fill,” Ruskin said, adding: “Senator Santorum is obviously a man with many pockets.”

Santorum's office did not comment.