Santorum aides live large off charity payroll

Sen. Rick Santorum’s charity donated about 40 percent of the $1.25 million it spent during a four-year period, well below Better Business Bureau standards — paying out the rest for overhead, including several hundred thousand dollars to campaign aides on the charity payroll.

The charity, Operation Good Neighbor, is described on its Web site as an organization promoting “compassionate conservatism” by providing grants to small nonprofit groups, many of them religious.

The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance says charitable organizations should spend at least 65 percent of their total expenses on program activities.

Operation Good Neighbor is based at the same address as Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum’s campaign office in suburban Philadelphia, and some of the same people who have worked on his campaign are working for his charity and collecting money from it, records show.

Among them:

_Maria Diesel, who has been paid fundraising fees by the campaign, is listed as the charity’s finance director. Filings show she has received $192,958 in professional fundraising fees from Operation Good Neighbor.

_Robert Bickhart, who has also been involved in raising campaign funds for Santorum, is listed as the charity’s executive director. Filings show he has earned $75,000 in salary from the charity since 2001 and that his business, Capitol Resource Group, rents the office space to the charity. The charity has paid $20,437 in occupancy fees, filings show.

Santorum, the No. 3 Senate Republican, is embroiled in a tough campaign against his leading Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey.

The foundation’s treasurer defended the organization’s level of giving. If money set aside for future gifts is counted, she said, 45 percent of the money collected during the period will go toward charity.

“It is important to realize that the foundation does not have the same ability as better-known charities, such as the Salvation American or the American Red Cross, to raise money without spending much money do so,” Barbara Bonfiglio said in a letter posted Friday evening on the charity’s Web site.

She said Santorum is not involved in the charity’s day-to-day operations. Virginia Davis, Santorum’s campaign press secretary, referred questions to the charity.

The charity’s finances first came under scrutiny earlier in the week by the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

From 2001 through 2004, filings show Operation Good Neighbor took in a total of $1.6 million and spent about $1.25 million. Of that amount, just over $501,000 was awarded in grants, helping people from the homeless to AIDS patients. The charity has not yet reported 2005 figures.

Its IRS filings are signed by Bonfiglio. Its secretary is listed as Mark Rodgers, Santorum’s former chief of staff and now staff director at the Senate Republican Conference, where Santorum is chairman.

Operation Good Neighbor’s filings do not show that either Bonfiglio or Rodgers was paid by the charity. The two _ along with Bickhart _ have been on its board since its inception.

Santorum is not the only senator with a charity. Late last year, Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was criticized after an Associated Press analysis found that his AIDS charity paid nearly a half-million dollars in consulting fees to members of his political inner circle.

Operation Good Neighbor traces its beginning to 2000, when Philadelphia played host to the Republican National Convention. Santorum _ then also facing re-election _ promoted an initiative that funneled corporate donations to the city’s disadvantaged during the convention. He later took the initiative and transformed it into the charity, according to published reports. He serves as its unpaid chairman.

The charity spent 31 percent on fundraising during the four-year period, an AP analysis found, under the 35 percent maximum the Better Business Bureau sets as a standard in that category.

But other expenditures, including $169,140 on conferences, conventions and meetings, and $52,906 on travel, brought the total overhead much higher.

While reports on the charity’s fundraising have been filed with the IRS, Operation Good Neighbor has not indicated on any of the forms that it has filed returns in any state.

Charities are exempt from filing in Pennsylvania if they don’t pay for fundraising or collect less than $25,000 per year.

Operation Good Neighbor is not registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State, said Allison Hrestak, a department spokeswoman. Bonfiglio said the charity learned of the state’s registration requirement during an IRS audit, and that it would comply.


On the Net:

Operation Good Neighbor:

Sen. Rick Santorum:

Bob Casey:

© 2006 The Associated Press