Charity begins at home | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Charity begins at home

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 1:31 PM

Sen. Tracy Steele's name pops up in this week's Times (second item) for a coy response on whether he'll attempt to shift to the House in 2010 when he's term limited in his Senate seat. He's not saying, though many expect him to run for the seat now held by the sole Green Party representative, Richard Carroll. (Carroll was recently denied membership in the Black Legislative Caucus, of which Steele is a member, on account of his skin color. Carroll is white.)

It wouldn't surprise me if Steele runs. The seat is good leverage for one of his outside jobs Actually, two, if you count Stand News, the newspaper Steele publishes.  He's not alone in seeking the various state agency ad placements available for print, of course, but, as a legislator, he carries a bit more clout with state employees than, say, the publisher of the Democrat-Gazette or Arkansas Times.

Warwick Sabin first reported for us about Steele's work to set up the Stand Foundation, a non-profit with the announced aim of providing leadership training for young adults. Some have viewed it uncharitably -- as a way to obtain contributions from major corporations with business before the legislature and, thus, to produce income for Senator Steele. Lobbyists have told the Times about receiving fund solicitations from Steele while the legislature was in session.

Absent the Foundation opening its records, which is not required under FOI laws, it's impossible to say how much, if any, money has been contributed by firms or people with legislative interests. But we can glean a little bit of telling information from the Foundation's tax return. The most recent return on file covers calendar 2007. It was filed last August.

Stand reported about $114,000 in contributions in 2007. Less than half was spent on "program services," a low percentage against commonly accepted standards for nonprofits. Direct expenditures on services in the range of 80 percent of income are considered a good rule of thumb. According to the report, the entire spending of about $46,000 for program services in 2007 went to one event -- a "Leadership Institute" held Feb. 2, 2007. It was attended by a reported 150 people. There's no breakdown on how the $46,000 -- or more than $300 per attendee -- was spent on the one-day event.

The major single expenditure by Stand Foundation in 2007? Steele's compensation of $50,346. In other words, about 44 percent of the money the Foundation raised in 2007 was spent on the senator, more than was spent on leadership training. Thus the headline.

I've sent the senator several questions. I hope he responds, but he hasn't been talkative with us since we began inquiring about the Stand Foundation's finances. He's described me as a "hater" in a signed column in his newspaper. But I've told him I'll print any response he sends in full. I also asked for a list of his Foundation contributors and a report on 2008.  I'd be happy to publish those, too.

CORRECTION: A reader familiar with form 990s who has an interest in Steele points out to me that the Stand Foundation seems to have misreported in its accounting of the $46,000 spent on the leadership conference. That leadership conference cost is actually a sum of all costs attributed to program expenses, including about half of Steele's salary, $25,000, and half of $18,000 in salaries paid others. The conference itself may have cost only a couple thousand dollars. So, in essence, Stand spent even less on direct program services than I originally reported, a tiny fraction of its income. Unless you count half of Steele's pay as program services.

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