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Murphy earmark helps fund Lemieux charity

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 12:26 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely
Austin's Playroom in The Children's Home of Pittsburgh March 15, 2007. The room is named after Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux's son, who was born prematurely. Philip G. Pavely/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Even as the leader of a charity, former Penguins center-turned-team co-owner Mario Lemieux needed help to reach his goals.

Congressman Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who has spoken out against “pork barrel” earmarks, directed through an earmark that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta provide $100,000 to Lemieux's charity in 2010 to fund a public information campaign about Hodgkin's disease.

The Mario Lemieux Foundation also received more than $500,000 in state and federal grants since 2004, helping lead to construction of children's playrooms at UPMC Mercy in Uptown, St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, hospitals in Somerset and McKeesport, and a medical facility in Gilda's Club in the Strip District.

The foundation spent $202,763 in donations on lobbyists from GSP Consulting to help raise money for the foundation.

Murphy declined comment. Lemieux was unavailable for comment.

Foundation officials defended the use of a lobbying firm, government earmarks and aid money even though the Lemieux Foundation had enough money banked to pay for its projects.

“All we're trying to do is continue to raise more and more money so that we can continue to expand the mission,” said Tom Grealish, president of the foundation.

The foundation has given out $13.8 million in grants through early 2011, most for cancer research. That doesn't include a $3.65 million pledge to revamp the Blood Cancer Institute in Shadyside.

Lemieux and his wife Nathalie gave $600,000 to the foundation. Its mission — raising money for cancer research, patient care and the Austin's Playroom Project — is personal to the family.

In the 1990s, Lemieux successfully battled Hodgkin's disease while his wife was hospitalized for three months after Austin, the couple's lone son and youngest child, was born prematurely.

The foundation employs five people, including Executive Director Nancy Angus. She said the lobbyists helped write grant proposals to gain money from larger charities because they have expertise in doing that.

The Lemieux Foundation's signature fundraising event is a golf tournament that has proven expensive to run, in terms of effort and economics, Grealish said. The tournament, which became a private event in 2006, generated a little more than $8.9 million in net revenue after incurring more than $19.8 million in expenses from 1996-2010, the nonprofit's federal filings show. The most recent tournament netted $455,000 — less than half what it brought in 12 years ago.

In fact, the foundation reported only $480,160 in assets on its 2010 990 Form filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Grealish said the foundation holds other events to raise money — notably, a fantasy hockey camp that started last year — but never will be as large as charities run by other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Andre Agassi.

“I wouldn't look for us to be one of those foundations that's sitting on $10-$20 million,” Grealish said. “... That's not who we are. That's not who Mario is.”

Rob Rossi is a reporter for Total Trib Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5675 or rrossi@tribweb.com.

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