Jesse Helms's Honeypot

Article excerpt

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 tremendous loophole."

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. …