It’s Time for You to Speak Up!

A jury recently convicted U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) of federal racketeering, bribery, and conspiracy, a total of 22 criminal charges. Days later, Fattah resigned his Congressional seat. The court will sentence him in October. He is likely to appeal.

The saga of yet another corrupt, unethical politician might not normally attract much attention from the nonprofit sector. However, this particular story should. And you should be outraged.

Among other things, prosecutors argued that Fattah used charities he created to funnel funds for his personal benefit:

  • Funds were stolen from a Fattah-founded charity to repay an illegal $1 million campaign loan.
  • Fattah created a fake charity that received federal funds that were then misappropriated.
  • Fattah-founded charities were used to launder stolen funds.
  • Fattah-controlled groups received federal grants, but tried to cover up what happened to that money when officials conducted financial audits.

Furthermore, a Daily News investigative report stated:

…nonprofits founded or supported by the Philadelphia congressman have paid out at least $5.8 million to his associates, including political operatives, ex-staffers and their relatives.”

Despite Fattah’s abuse of the public trust, his Democratic Party colleagues have been tepid in their reactions:

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA) — “It’s a shame to have something like this happen.”

Hear No Evil... by MASK Productions via FlickrPhiladelphia Mayor Jim Kenney — “The jury spoke, and the criminal justice system went forward.”

Ed Rendell (former Philadelphia District Attorney, former Philadelphia Mayor, former Pennsylvania Governor, and former Chair of the DNC) — “We’re not all bad. We’re not all evil.”

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) — “Heartbreaking.”

While the responses from the political sector have been weak, the nonprofit sector has been infuriatingly silent. Where is the Association of Fundraising Professionals? Where is the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations? Where is Charity Navigator? Where is The Chronicle of Philanthropy?

I was very frustrated by the deafening silence from the nonprofit community. Instead of a yawn or a shrug, we should be condemning Fattah’s abuse of the public trust and his misuse of nonprofit organizations because his misdeeds negatively impact the credibility of all nonprofit organizations. We should be demanding that the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General investigate Fattah and his charities. If appropriate, Fattah should be charged with violations of the state’s laws governing charities and the charities should be held to account.

Then, I realized something. I have a platform. Therefore:

I condemn Chaka Fattah for violating the public trust and tarnishing the reputation of the charity sector. The nonprofit sector relies on public trust; it is the lifeblood of the sector. The more people trust the sector, the more likely they are to give and the more they are likely to give. With less trust, giving decreases.

Steps must be taken to restore public trust. I call on the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General to conduct a thorough, speedy investigation and bring charges, if appropriate. I call on the Internal Revenue Service to conduct its own investigation and take appropriate legal measures, including revocation of charity status, if appropriate.

As members of the nonprofit community, we have an obligation to call-out bad behavior and to demand accountability. We have a right to expect legal and ethical behavior from our political leaders, just as it’s expected from us. Furthermore, we also have a right to expect government watchdogs to do their jobs to protect the public.

It’s quite possible that the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is investigating the Fattah situation. I hope so. But, since the Office has refused to confirm or deny such an investigation, I hope you will join me in demanding one.

In the United States, power comes from We the People. Failure to exercise that power is a failure to take civic responsibility. As Edmund Burke said centuries ago:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”

Use the comment section below to join me in expressing your feelings about the Fattah saga. Or, if you prefer, contact our government watchdogs directly: Charitable Trust and Organizations Section, Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Strawberry Square, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Telephone: 717-787-3391.

Speak up!

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?


UPDATE (July 8, 2016): Another member of Congress has been indicted for charity fraud. According to a Fox News report:

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) and her chief of staff have been charged with multiple fraud and other federal offenses in a grand jury indictment unsealed Friday after a federal investigation into a fraudulent charity with ties to the congresswoman.

Brown, a 69-year-old Democrat, was to appear later Friday in Jacksonville federal court on charges of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction and filing of false tax returns. She has represented a Jacksonville-based congressional district since 1993 and is seeking re-election in a newly-redrawn district.”

Politicians must stop using charities to launder bribes and as their personal slush funds. It’s criminal and unethical. And it erodes overall public confidence not only in our political leaders but also in the charity sector in general. Enough is enough!

6 Comments to “It’s Time for You to Speak Up!”

  1. I have pondered this mystery, too, and I wonder if we in the nonprofit world don’t speak up because we hope the scandals will die down before they have a greater negative impact on other (our) nonprofits. The example you cite is outrageous, but I think most of us know at least one nonprofit that walks a fine line (and sometimes crosses the line). I once worked at a nonprofit that engaged in unethical practices, and I warned my boss and board that our donors would eventually figure it out and then withdraw their support. They had a “buyer beware” attitude; I left the organization. Investors who are duped (whether in the for-profit or nonprofit sector) are sometimes too embarrassed to admit they were duped and report the wrongdoing, but the betrayal can have a long-lasting impact.
    I applaud your condemnation of Fattah’s actions and agree that Fattah needs to be held accountable.

  2. As with convicted PA State Senator Fumo (D) and convicted Speaker of the PA House of Representatives Perzel (R), convicted PA Congressman Fattah (D) was allowed to play with a variety of charities’ money because the charities’ staffs and boards blatantly allowed it, turned a blind eye, or (I’ll allow for the presumption of innocence) didn’t know exactly what they were doing (still not an excuse for illegal activity). I agree with you, Michael, that state and federal regulators must look into every organization with which the convicted Congressman had any association, and I will be happy to visit Harrisburg and Washington with you to press that action. Concurrently, state and federal legislators (where is Chuck Grassley when he could do some good for the sector?) need to tighten rules regarding elected officials and their relationships with charitable organizations. Again, I will be happy to work with you to move this agenda.

    As to the silence of the sector, you might recall an AFP Philly annual meeting during Andrew Watt’s first year as AFP Intl President, coinciding with the then still merging story of Jerry Sandusky, his charity The Second Mile, and the complicity of Penn State administrators. As Watt talked about the need to press for accountability in ethics among fundraising professionals, while bemoaning a dearth of real world cases to pursue, I brought up Second Mile. Watt was unwilling to see any connection between accusations (this was pre-trial) of child abuse and the complicity of Second Mile staff and board members to look into, let alone report to authorities, rumors and stories of abuse that had been going on for years under the aegis of Second Mile. His excuse was that the problem wasn’t exactly a fundraising problem. Convicted Congressman Fattah’s actions may have also evaded a strict definition of a fundraising problem, but it certainly fits squarely into a problem with stewardship and reporting of funds, once raised.

    Perhaps Jason Lee will show more grit in the face of cases that erode public trust in the charitable sector.

    • Kevin, thank you for taking the time to respond and for your support on this issue. I’m not quite sure what next actions to take. I welcome your suggestions. Sadly, it seems increasingly common that politicians are using charities as their personal bank accounts. Today, a member of Congress from Florida was indicted for setting up a fraudulent charity to use as her personal slush fund. More needs to be done to catch these corrupt politicians sooner rather than later and to provide a strong disincentive for them to fraudulently run charities. But, how we get there stumps me.

  3. Michael, thank you for your outraged article – I hope we can get many to stand up and share the outrage and demand justice.

    • Danielle, thank you for sharing my concern about politicians who engage in corrupt nonprofit practices. Sadly, yet another member of Congress was indicted today for running a fraudulent charity for her own benefit. It appears to be an increasingly common practice that is screaming from greater scrutiny from charity regulators.

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