Current, former athletes' charities get millions in taxpayer dollars
By Carl Prine and Rob Rossi
Published: Saturday, October 6, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
WASHINGTON — An educational foundation launched by multimillionaire tennis star Andre Agassi had an $82.2 million nest egg in 2010, but tax dollars still helped buy his charter school solar panels and power ports for electric cars.
Agassi's Las Vegas nonprofit took $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to help erect the “Alternative Energy School of the Future.” According to the agency, the money was earmarked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, solely for the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education — no other schools need apply.
Since 2000, federal records show that Agassi's educational enterprise netted $500,000 in U.S. Department of Justice crime prevention funds and another $1.6 million from the Department of Education earmarked by Reid and other Nevada lawmakers.
There's also the $26.5 million in state and federal money the Agassi campus has received since 2005, part of a formula private-public charter schools use in Nevada to fund operations.
Another $35.7 million in special economic development bonds were issued in 2005 by the state of Nevada that Agassi's charity used to build the school.
No one doubts that the more than 1,000 K-12 students in Agassi's charter system get a fabulous education. Kids must enter a lottery just to attend classes.
But taxpayers far from Las Vegas question why they should be on the hook for Agassi's solar panels and crime-fighting notions. As a celebrity, did Agassi, a high school dropout, leapfrog other deserving educational charities with far less money in the bank?
Neither Reid's nor Agassi's staffers would answer that or other questions.
“It's a fair question to ask whether any celebrity gets to the front of the line for government funding over more deserving candidates,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan, Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Charity Navigator gave Agassi's nonprofit a dismal one-star rating for its high fundraising expenses and, in some years, lack of independent board scrutiny. Ken Berger, the nonprofit watchdog's president, said that too often deserving foundations are leapfrogged by those with famous athlete or celebrity nameplates, not just for government dollars but for help from private donors.
“Even if it's legal there's the problem of appearances,” he said. “And what happens if a celebrity suffers an embarrassment and the politicians discontinue funding?”
Berger said donors should carefully scrutinize nonprofit performance and fundraising before contributing to any charity. Pointing to a self-imposed moratorium on earmarks such as Reid's that have ruled Capitol Hill since 2010, Ellis added that Congress should cut spending on favored constituents.
“Congress likes to talk about the power of the purse strings,” Ellis said. “OK, well then, use your powers for good and set up the metrics agencies need to justify government spending and then haul them into your committees to make sure that they're doing the right thing.”
Agassi's nonprofit hardly was alone. Combing through thousands of pages of IRS and state agency filings from the charities of sports celebrities, the Tribune-Review found a dozen athletes who regularly took government money. In many cases they hired lobbyists to help secure the money — even when they had millions in private donations to spend.
On this page is a scorecard of some of the athletes whose charity records the Trib reviewed.
In audited filings with state agencies and the IRS, two of three interlinked nonprofits founded by pro golfer Tiger Woods received nearly $7.8 million in government help between 2004 and 2008.
Did they need the aid? At the end of 2008, Woods' Learning Center Foundation in Anaheim and its parent Tiger Woods Foundation reported combined assets of $73.2 million. By 2010, the assets rose to nearly $126 million, according to the foundations' IRS filings.
Tagged as the world's first billionaire athlete by Forbes Magazine, Woods' riches apparently didn't stop Congress from trying to give him money he didn't even want. U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Starr Stepp said Sen. Judd Gregg — the powerful New Hampshire Republican who once chaired the Senate Budget Committee — earmarked nearly $2 million for the Tiger Woods Foundation in 2005 to fight juvenile crime.
However, Stepp said the “grantee never accepted the award or spent the funds” and the government eventually “deobligated” the money.
Unlike the records of most nonprofits the Trib surveyed, Woods' charities have not specified government sources of revenue, listing the help on audited financial statements only as “a government agency.”
When contacted, Woods' executives refused to answer questions about the role taxpayer financing plays in his foundations. They declined to discuss the $10.8 million in California Statewide Communities Development Authority bonds that built Woods' charter school or the deal his charities cut to rent a 14-acre campus from the Orange County Flood Control District for $1 per year.
The Trib filed a formal public records request with California authorities to list every check lawmakers provided to Woods' charities over the past decade.
Like Woods' foundations, they have yet to respond.
Hall of Fame Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green is lauded as a gridiron hero and a philanthropist.
Founded in 1988, the faith-based Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation's after-school program began getting federal aid with a 2001 grant for nearly $1.5 million from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the umbrella agency for Americorps, Serve America and other initiatives.
Green drew the eye of President George W. Bush. Bush appointed Green in 2003 to chair his Presidential Council on Service and Civic Participation. The board monitored and advised the Corporation for National and Community Services on “practices for the promotion of volunteer service and civic participation.”
In the same year, Green's Youth Life Foundation received $1.5 million in Corporation funds earmarked by Congress, federal records show. Because lawmakers — not the Corporation — mandated the spending, there was no conflict of interest, said Corporation spokeswoman Samantha Jo Warfield.
Warfield told the Trib that records that might have tracked the charity's performance on the grants were destroyed after 2009. A federal records request filed by the Trib uncovered only that Green's charity got and spent the money.
In 2009, Green's Youth Life Foundation reported to the IRS that 98 percent of its annual revenue stemmed from government aid. Within the next two years, however, the $3.2 million in reported government funding dried up. By 2010, Green's charity was telling the IRS that it had dwindled to two board members — Green and his wife, Jewel — and $33,612 in assets.
Neither Green nor his employees returned phone calls or messages.
Walter and Connie Payton
The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation claims on its website that staffers “work closely with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to ensure that the neediest children in the state of Illinois” get Christmas presents, distributing gifts to up to 16,000 kids annually.
That's underplaying the arrangement. Illinois records show the charity run by the widow of Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton received $1.8 million in government aid between 2002 and 2010 — mostly from DCFS itself — to play Santa Claus in the Chicago area. That's a third of the foundation's total revenue over that span, according to its state and federal filings.
Illinois lawmakers recently cut $86 million from the DCFS budget, triggering 295 layoffs at the agency. Officials decided to cut future aid to Payton's program.
DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said the state's partnership had a “multiplier effect” by bringing private-sector support for the toy drive that wouldn't have happened with just government support.
Payton representatives didn't return messages seeking comment.
Founded in 1992 to help autistic children, the Dan Marino Foundation never took a penny from the government until 2006. That's when Florida officials offered $535,000 to the Fort Lauderdale-based charity to start an aquatics program to prevent drownings of children with learning disabilities.
The foundation received some money from Broward County for a summer employment program for autistic teens; 33 percent of the foundation's students get jobs in the private sector with the training, more than four times the national average, according to Marino's charity. Most of a total $1.6 million in government money the foundation received, though, was unexpected.
In late 2009, Kids At Home, a Boca Raton, Fla., nonprofit that transitioned teens out of foster care, collapsed. Broward County officials had to quickly find a program to take them in, and Marino's foundation did. With it came emergency government funding tied to the shuttered charity, revenue that ended in 2011 when the last client transferred to a larger nonprofit.
In 2009, the foundation began to build on the employment program by fundraising for a $4 million campus that would train cognitively handicapped students and disburse diplomas they need to land jobs, live self-sufficiently and come off the public dole.
Having raised $3 million, Marino asked the state for $500,000 in aid to help finish it, arguing the public would save money by turning these kids into taxpayers instead of dependents.
That's when Marino began to realize that his name meant a lot in Miami, but he didn't impress Tallahassee politicos, said Mary Partin, the nonprofit's CEO.
“Dan's just not political,” said Partin. “It's that Pittsburgh mentality he has.”
So Marino's charity spent $57,909 on lobbyists in 2009 and 2010 to woo legislators. State Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, decided to help, inserting $500,000 into a 2011 spending bill for the school. But Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, vetoed it.
Marino's nonprofit intends to erect it without taxpayer help, Partin said.
“I went to Tallahassee five times and Dan went up, too. But I realized that I could spend that time talking to corporate donors and do better.”
Before doping allegations dogged Lance Armstrong, his story of beating cancer to win seven Tour de France titles hiked donations to the Texas-based Lance Armstrong Foundation.
At its peak in 2005, Lance's nonprofit harvested nearly $52.4 million in revenue, records show, and by 2010 it had $90.6 million to spend on projects.
That didn't stop Armstrong's charity from seeking government aid. Over the past 10 years, it received nearly $6.2 million in government grants — mostly from the Department of Health and Human Services — to help survivors of cancer. During that span, “Live Strong” spent $569,587 on lobbyists, according to government records and the organization's filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
Federal and state authorities declined to comment but Armstrong's foundation insisted the government gave the money because the nonprofit meets stringent grant requirements and is uniquely qualified to aid cancer survivors.
“There are few organizations that do what we do and that's support the survivors of cancer, especially in underserved communities,” said Katherine McLane, the charity's vice president for communications and external affairs.
Along with foundations run by actor Michael J. Fox and rocker Elton John, New Jersey-based Charity Navigator gave Live Strong high marks for its accountabilty and transparency, despite Armstrong's recent public relations woes.
“It's the opposite of what usually happens,” Berger said. “Normally, the celebrity suffers a scandal and the charity goes down the tubes with him or her. But with Live Strong, people feel very strongly about its cancer programs.”
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