*UPDATED BELOW* Hannity's Charity Downgraded Significantly
Top-rated talk host Sean Hannity incessantly plugs his Freedom Concert tours on the radio, advertised nobly as fundraising for college tuition money earmarked for the children of slain US troops. He always includes a disclaimer if you listen closely: 100% of the profits will go to the families of our heros.
Where creative accounting can make almost anything look like an "expense", many have wondered what kind of money is reaching the families and how much is being burned on paper-pushing, marketing, consulting or direct-mail jobs, bureaucratic overhead, patronage contracts or worse.
A nasty donnybrook recently begun by ultra-bonkers right wing blogger Debbie Schlussel asked some of these questions, accusing Hannity and the Freedom Alliance of exploiting public trust. Schlussel described lavish travel expenses and favored treatment for "friends of Sean", interspersed with melodramatic descriptions of meager donations given to soldiers with grotesque injuries.
But the official tax returns filed by the Freedom Alliance did indeed show that the foundation's overhead was far greater than it's charitable payouts for the last three years. Just 7-12% of funds were attributed to "grants and allocations", meaning they give far less percentage-wise than other scholarship foundations. As one example, the United Negro College Fund's average rate is around 50%.
If the Freedom Concerts' purpose is, as stated, a charity meant to raise money for the children of wounded combat veterans, they are more bloated and inefficent than most of the government agencies Hannity has been bashing, such as Medicare, the DMV and US Postal Service.
Because the Freedom Alliance writes off expenses of up to ten million dollars per year before funds are allocated for donation, it seems the operation is chiefly funding white-collar jobs for management, staff and third party consultants, air travel, "caging services" and mailing list providers.
Because Freedom Alliance is a bitterly partisan political operation with scholarship fundraising arm, their ulterior aim seems more designed to promote Hannity's image than it does to provide aid widely and cost-effectively to veteran families. This suggests the fund is a publicity initiative, meant to generate goodwill for Hannity and North by giving token amounts to soldier families who are pawns in a right vs. left public opinion battle.
Other scholarship charities like Fisher House provide for military kids without also promoting corporate political pundits. A better bet might also be to support the new wartime GI bill, the military's own college-benefits package, now transferrable to family members.
A Freedom Alliance rebuttal denied most of the accusations, but did not reveal internal accounting showing that the preponderance of money raised is not being substantially eaten up on overhead - or their other pursuits. In claiming about 80% of income goes for "program activities", they failed to tell the public or their trusting donors what that means.
People just want to know how much is going to the kids. If "program activities" could encompass both payouts to kids AND private jet rentals, their response was more akin to Enron-style accounting gibberish than a defense of these allegations made in "great detail and specificity".
The response was only partially useful in countering Schussel's charges, according to right-wing pundit David Frum who remained baffled by the foundation's opacity: "[i]f say a $40 ticket yields a $4 donation to Freedom Alliance, we can't vouch for what happens to the other $36."
But attending a Freedom Concert is a great way to signal your support for Sean Hannity and Oliver North who founded the Freedom Alliance. You can see Lynyrd Skynyrd play an amusement park, with single seats selling for $75-130 this year.
Or, to support our troops more transparently, you might choose to donate to a more efficient charity. I wonder, for example, if injured soldiers who happen to believe the war is illegal and immoral qualify for Freedom Alliance grants. Will the donors ever get to see records showing how soldier families that receive a benefit are selected?
It would be a shame if this was a mass-messaging scheme, designed to make Hannity look more troop-friendly after seven years serving as the privatized misinformation organ of the Bush Iraq Team during the "selling" of the war described by first-hand administration insiders George Tenet, Scott McClellan and Lt. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson.
Recently unclassified documents exposed Oliver North took part in President Reagan's secret program to skirt domestic propaganda laws using taxpayer money to steer public opinion during the Iran-Contra affair, targeting reporters for punishment and skewing reports to influence Congress.
It's no wonder Oliver North's foundation is continuing his tradition of secrecy and propaganda today, dredging heart-wrenching sympathy for slain troops' children to lure donations when most of the loot is really going for this hyper-partisan organization's emotional branding through "operational expenses". Ironically, this foundation represents a form of socialism where those of means voluntarily help the needy, only Oliver North is filtering who gets any cash.
But don't worry, they're not arranging secret drug or weapon sales while laundering money for foreign murder squads - that would be illegal!
UPDATE (April 4, 2010): Two days after ethics watchdogs CREW and a veterans group filed lawsuits over misleading claims about charitable contributions, the rating service Charity Navigator downgraded Freedom Alliance's 4-star rating to just two stars.
The concert promoters had previously touted the reputation of the Charity Navigator service, but has since removed their logo from their website.
This brings up questions about the original 4-star rating. While it's possible Freedom Alliance misled the rating service, some suggest Charity Navigator knew all along - or should have known.
This embarrassing comment on their own website alerted Charity Navigator in 2008 that IRS forms show only a pittance was being allocated to soldier's families compared to what Freedom Alliance had pocketed in salaries and expenses.