U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., set up a charitable foundation in 1996, the year he entered baseball's Hall of Fame. Every year since, he has been the fund's biggest recipient.
The non-profit Jim Bunning Foundation, which collects the money the former pitcher gets from autographing baseball memorabilia, has taken in more than $504,000, Senate and tax records show.
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Of that, Bunning has earned $180,000 in salary for working a reported hour a week.
By contrast, the foundation has given $136,435, or about one-fourth of its income, to churches and charitable groups around Northern Kentucky. The largest sums went to local Catholic churches Bunning has attended.
Records show that Bunning is the foundation's sole employee and the only person to draw a paycheck from it.
Friends defend Bunning's salary. There couldn't be a Jim Bunning Foundation unless there was a Jim Bunning, said Rick Robinson, a Washington lobbyist who handles the foundation's records.
"The foundation is a charity that hired Jim Bunning to work for it," said Robinson. "Without hiring him to do this, the charity wouldn't have any income."
The foundation is overseen by a three-member board: the senator's wife, Mary Bunning; an old friend, Cincinnati tire dealer Bob Sumerel, whose family has given about $25,000 to Bunning's campaigns; and Robinson, a former congressional aide to Bunning whose lobbying clients in recent years have received budget earmarks from the senator.
Watchdog groups this week said the foundation blurs a number of Senate ethics and Internal Revenue Service rules regarding outside income for members of Congress, legitimate uses for tax-exempt charities and whether Bunning — as a paid employee — improperly dominates the foundation's board.
"For him to be taking more for himself than he gives to the charities just doesn't look good, no matter how you cut it," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago.
"The IRS doesn't want people to just set up their weekend hobbies as nonprofit foundations so they can take advantage of the tax-protection rules," Borochoff said.
Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard referred all questions to foundation board member Robinson, who incorporated the foundation.
Charity at home
In an interview Wednesday, Robinson said Bunning created the foundation so he could collect money from his baseball memorabilia autographs without violating current Senate limits on outside income.
Senators are discouraged from making much money outside of their $169,300 Senate salaries. But they are allowed to establish charitable foundations, which can accept the honoraria and other income they once were permitted to take personally.
Bunning started his foundation in 1996, with the approval of the Senate ethics committee and the IRS, Robinson said.
Bunning, who plans to seek re-election in 2010, oversees the IRS as a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
"Quite simply, 1996 was the year that Jim Bunning was inducted into the Hall of Fame," Robinson said. "Suddenly there was an opportunity for Jim to go to card shows because of his new status as a member of the Hall of Fame. That's a big thing."
A decade later, people still stand in line to pay for Bunning's signature. This year, the foundation reported $61,631 in income from Bunning's autographs at events that included 10 baseball shows around the country. The foundation collected about one-third of that income from unspecified "private signings," where no location or customer is identified in public records.
A Bunning-signed baseball fetched about $60 this week on a couple of Internet auction sites.
Charity watchdogs said it's admirable to start a foundation. But they question the $20,000 salary that Bunning, 77, takes every year, while the foundation gives an average $13,600 a year to charities.
Bunning's salary alone — not counting payroll taxes, legal expenses and other administrative costs — has consumed 36 percent of the money his foundation has collected, the largest share. Only 27 percent has gone to charitable work.
A legitimate charity's administrative costs should be between 20 to 30 percent of its expenses, with most of its money going to charitable work, said Claire Gaudiani, professor at the New York University Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.
Referring to the numbers at the Jim Bunning Foundation, Gaudiani said: "These are the wrong percentages. This is backwards."
Because the foundation takes in more than it spends, it keeps a growing savings account — $146,342 as of last Jan. 1 — invested in a mutual fund
At some point in the future, Robinson said, the foundation hopes it might build up enough excess cash to distribute the interest income to charities without diminishing the principal. That would give local charities an additional shot at foundation money.
But the foundation has no plan for when this might happen, he added.
Conflicts of interest
The foundation gives a large number of donations every year to Catholic churches, Catholic schools and other groups around Northern Kentucky, where Bunning lives, usually in sums of $100 to $500.
In 2007, the foundation divided $18,200 among 25 recipients. Bunning's current church, St. Therese Catholic Church in Southgate, received $5,250, by far the largest single donation. In previous years, when St. Catherine of Siena Church in Fort Thomas was his church, St. Catherine got the largest donations.
The donations are large enough for the Jim Bunning Foundation to be credited by name in the charities' promotional materials released throughout the community.
The three-member board that runs the foundation decides which charities to support and how much to give, not Bunning, Robinson said. But he could not explain how the choices are made.
"There's no real method to the madness," he said.
The board does not meet in person, but it tries to stay in touch by telephone or through the mail, he added.
Borochoff, of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said the IRS strongly urges charitable foundations to have boards in charge that are independent of the paid staff, to provide a system of checks and balances.
Since Bunning is paid by a board that includes his wife, an old friend and a former aide who now lobbies in the Senate, it hardly sounds like the Jim Bunning Foundation complies, Borochoff said.
"C'mon, it's not like any of these board members are ever going to disagree with Senator Bunning or suggest that he maybe take less money and give more to charity," Borochoff said. "This is his board."
Asked about the independence of the board, Robinson said: "The IRS has never questioned it."
Another watchdog, the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, raised concerns about lobbyist Robinson's role.
Robinson is paid to lobby the Senate, including Bunning. And records show that Bunning has added money to federal spending bills for two of Robinson's clients — Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky and HealthPoint Family Care Inc.
"Bunning basically wants this guy to sign off on his salary while this guy has lobbying business before Bunning in the United States Senate," said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director.
"It's hard to see that as anything but a conflict," Sloan said, adding that her group might file a complaint with the Senate ethics committee when the 111th Congress convenes in January. "The whole thing is very troubling."
Robinson said there is absolutely no conflict of interest, and he is insulted that anyone would raise such questions about the foundation.
"You're attributing an evil intent to this," Robinson said. "I feel pretty good about it."