At least two dozen charitable organizations set up or run by lawmakers or their families take donations from companies trying to influence policy, a review of federal tax records and Congressional disclosure reports by The New York Times has found.
The disclosures, which are detailed in a story running on the newspaper's website Monday, revealed that donations continued despite 2007 rules meant to stem the influence of special interests.
While executives said they wanted to give to a good cause, what exactly companies donated to suggested that charity was not the main reason for many of the donations, according to the newspaper.
In addition, in an apparent violation of ethics rules, contributions have often not been disclosed, the paper said.
For example, Cigarette-maker Altria donated at least $45,000 in six weeks in the fall of 2009 to charitable organizations founded by members of the House — including Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio and James Clyburn, the Democratic whip — as the firm was trying to gain approval of legislation seeking to curb illegal Internet sales if its cigarettes, the newspaper reported.
Some legislators defended the set-up in the article.
"There is nothing improper here at all," Mark Hayes, a spokesman for Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar was quoted as saying. "They are simply causes he believes in."
Lugar helped found two Indiana groups supported by corporate contributions, The New York Times reported.
'We are not apologetic'
Meanwhile, corporate representatives admitted their companies were trying to gain access to lawmakers and push their agendas, according to the report.
"We are not apologetic about it at all: it is part of our overall effort to work with policy makers," Tom Williams, spokesman for Duke Energy, told the newspaper.
Current and former lawmakers and Capitol Hill ethics officials are troubled by the charitable donations, the newspaper reported, and call them a vast unregulated front in Washington's "pay to play" culture.
The charitable donations usually are far more than what firms are allowed to give candidates in campaign contributions, the newspaper reported.
"Almost all of these foundations, they were set up for a good purpose," Mickey Edwards, an Oklahoma Republican who served in the House for 16 years, told the Times. "But as soon as you take a donation, it creates more than just an appearance problem for the member of Congress. It is a real conflict."
The donations can create expectations that the lawmakers will return the favor, Edwards added.