Thursday, May 28, 2015

Fighting sham charities -- May 28, 2015 column


Outside the supermarket, a woman sitting at a card table says she is collecting food for needy families with children.

I don’t recognize the name of her group and she’s vague about where the food is going. But she’s friendly and seems sincere, so I buy an extra can of baked beans. More generous shoppers than I stuff dollars in her jar. I hope she’s on the level and go about my day.

How many times do we have such conflicting thoughts and emotions? At every turn, we’re asked to give. We know people are hurting, we want to help -- but we don’t want to be stupid. In my case, the financial risk was minuscule, but too many kind-hearted souls contribute real money to bogus charities.  

There must be a special circle of Hell for charity scammers who dupe unsuspecting donors. In this world, though, we rely on government to punish the wicked.  

In an unprecedented sign of nationwide resolve, all 50 states and the District of Columbia joined the Federal Trade Commission May 18 and accused four charities of fleecing more than $187 million from unsuspecting donors from 2008 to 2012. The charities, all with cancer in their names and run by family members, allegedly used almost none of the money they raised for cancer patients for patients.

The charities claimed donors’ contributions would “provide pain medication to children suffering from cancer, transport cancer patients to chemotherapy appointments, or pay for hospice care for cancer patients,” according to the complaint filed in federal court. “These were lies.”

None of the groups even had programs to provide pain medicine to patients. None transported patients to chemotherapy and none paid for hospice care.

Calling the groups “sham charities,” the complaint says almost every penny collected actually paid for-profit fundraisers and enriched the small group that ran the charities.

The funds donors intended for cancer patients instead bought cars, dainties from Victoria’s Secret, meals at Hooters, and “training trips” for employees and their families in Disney World and cruises of the Caribbean. Donations went for personal loans and paid for college tuition, gym memberships, Jet Ski outings, dating Website subscriptions and tickets to concerts and sporting events.

Less than 3 cents of every dollar collected went to cancer patients in cash and goods, the complaint states. “Comfort boxes” for patients included mostly overstock items, Carnation Instant Breakfast, Little Debbie Snack Cakes and later Moon Pies.

Under terms of a proposed settlement agreement, Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society agreed to shut down, and three principals will be banned from fundraising and other charitable management activities. Litigation will continue against Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services and founder and president, James Reynolds Sr., the FTC said.

It’s no easy task keeping track of charities. In 2012, there were about 1.6 million nonprofits registered with the Internal Revenue Service. Individuals gave roughly $240.6 billion to charities in 2013, according to Giving USA.

Almost every major disaster and tragedy generates a new wave of scam artists. State and federal regulators simply can’t keep up. 

In case you’re thinking that sham charities are a modern phenomenon, think again. Former President Grover Cleveland warned in 1906 that people might be discouraged from giving to responsible charities because of fraudulent schemes. He suggested the creation of an agency to test charities and provide “reliable guidance” to donors. 

Fortunately, today several organizations do just that, including the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch and GuideStar. The FTC has good advice on its Charity Scams page.

Consumers should know that many sham charities have names strikingly similar to reputable ones. Beware of appeals that tug at heartstrings with diseases like cancer and the suffering of children, police, firefighters and veterans. Ask questions; legitimate groups should provide information on how they spend donations.

And I learned this: “Wise donors don’t drop money into canisters at the checkout counter or hand over cash to solicitors outside the supermarket,” Charity Navigator advises in Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors.

We all have a role to play in stopping sham charities. Now more than ever, it’s important to be generous -- and smart.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wright brothers soar in our imaginations -- May 21, 2015 column


Perhaps no Memorial Day has been as quietly momentous as May 30, 1899.

One hundred and 16 years ago, on what was then called Decoration Day, Wilbur Wright, 32, of Dayton, Ohio, sat down and wrote a letter by hand that literally changed the course of history.

He asked the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for all the papers the Smithsonian had published on aviation and a list of other works in English on the subject. He intended, he said, to devote whatever time he could spare from his bicycle shop to the systematic study of human flight.

Aware that his plan would seem far-fetched, since most people believed man wasn’t meant to fly and it was folly to try, Wright wrote:

“I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine.”

Amazingly, the Smithsonian responded and sent pamphlets and a list. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville began their studies.

They worked tirelessly -- from studying birds in flight to conquering the technical and mechanical challenges of building a flyer. Four and a half years later, on a sandy beach in North Carolina the brothers piloted the first sustained flights of a heavier-than-air machine.

Who the brothers were, how it all happened and what came next make the compelling story biographer David McCullough tells in “The Wright Brothers.” The book debuts at No. 1 in both the print and e-book nonfiction and hardback nonfiction categories in the May 24 New York Times Book Review.

We may not agree on much in this cantankerous country, but I’ll hazard a guess on one thing: Everybody loves a story of the American dream. It’s hard to resist a tale of American ingenuity, hard work, courage and perseverance, especially when it ends in unequivocal success.

The Wrights surmounted so many obstacles on their path that their triumph seems made for TV.  Indeed, Tom Hanks scooped up the rights for an HBO miniseries even before the book was released May 5.

That a man could take to the air like a bird was such an absurd notion that many considered the Wrights odd. The brothers were inseparable and never married. They shared the family house, cooking duties and a bank account.

They had “no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own,” McCullough writes.

Yet they never gave up.

They persisted despite the difficulty in shipping their flying machines in parts to the remote Outer Banks coast and in combating relentless swarms of mosquitoes, unpredictable weather and the occasional lack of wind. 

They persevered despite the real possibility that they would die trying, as had other aviator pioneers. Orville nearly did die in a crash that took the life of his passenger, the first death in aviation history.

What they did have was a dream coupled with energy, courage and the spark of genius. They worked six days a week.  Neither they nor their father, a traveling preacher, had a high school diploma, but their father had a substantial library. The boys and their sister Katharine read voraciously on all subjects.

They also pondered, thought through problems, and when they failed experimented some more. And they wrote things out. By hand. And here’s another thing that distinguishes the Wrights:  

“Seldom ever did any one of the Wrights – father, sons, daughter – put anything down on paper that was dull or pointless or poorly expressed,” McCullough says.

When the brothers made their first successful flights in Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903, no reporters were there. A “ludicrously inaccurate” news story “concocted” by the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk ran in  several newspapers around the country, McCullough writes.

A sampling of the news coverage on the Library of Congress’ site includes the story in the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch, on page 5, headlined “A Machine That Flies.”   

When the world finally took notice, the Wright brothers became larger than life, first in France and Europe, then in the United States. By all accounts, the celebrities never let wealth and fame go to their heads.

They grasped as inspiration the idea that man could soar with the birds and applied dogged determination until it happened.

This summer, the heroic Wright brothers are again lifting Americans’ spirits.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

21st Century struggles with memorializing the fallen -- May 14, 2015 column


America’s last surviving World War I veteran died in 2011. Frank Buckles was 110 years old, and he devoted his last years to pushing for a national World War I memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

There still isn’t one.

If all goes as hoped, though, the National World War One memorial will open in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars.” But it won’t be on the Mall. 

After a design competition to be announced any day, the World War One Centennial Commission hopes to transform Pershing Park, a block from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, where today a statue of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces in the war, commands a dismal plaza that has fallen into disrepair.  

Buckles had dreamed of repurposing as a national monument the District of Columbia’s elegant, open-air memorial to the city’s 499 World War I dead, but city officials balked. An effort to create a memorial to doughboys in Constitution Gardens on the Mall, costing up to $10 million, also collapsed.

And now there’s the problem of money. When Congress approved the Pershing Park site last December, it decreed: “No federal funds may be obligated or expended” for the World War I memorial.

It took only 60 years to build the World War II Memorial in Washington. The saga of the World War I memorial shows how long and winding the road can be to commemorate our war heroes, and that has implications for memorializing fighters in the War on Global Terror. 

We do have state, local and online memorials that honor troops who have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and related conflicts. Nearly 6,900 American men and women have died in combat since 2001.

But unlike previous wars, this one may not end when all the troops eventually come home from Afghanistan as most have from Iraq, not if the cancer of extremism continues to spread in the region.  

That matters because under the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, which governs new memorials in Washington, a new war memorial cannot be built until at least 10 years after “the officially designated end” of a war.

Then there’s the question of where to put such a memorial. The National Mall is officially full. Congress in 2003 designated a “Reserve” area where no new memorials can be built. The swath of prime real estate from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial is a “substantially completed work of civic art,” Congress said. Some memorials were grandfathered in and Congress made exceptions for others, but new commemorative works are prohibited.

With budgets tight and the congressional Republican majority eager to hold down spending, the prospect of significant federal funds for a memorial to the War on Terror appears slim.

Fortunately, the story of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ experience won’t be completely missing from the nation’s capital.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial  Fund, which built The Wall, plans an underground Education Center at the Wall that not only will put faces with the 58,000 names listed but also will include photos of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

“Every hour on the hour, we’re going to show photos of Iraq and Afghanistan” veterans, Jan Scruggs, founder of the fund, told DOD News last month.

“This will have enormous psychological importance to the people who served in these wars. Eventually they’ll get their own monument, I suspect… But this will be a place that will be a very big deal to them,” said Scruggs, who hopes to start construction in 2018 and open the education center in 2020.

But, again, there’s a question of money. Scruggs said the center needs to raise $92 million more.

While space at the education center is not a permanent way to commemorate the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a decent start while we consider what a fitting monument to our latest combat veterans should be.

Let’s hope we get together as a country and build a national tribute before this generation of vets fades away.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Politicians need not apply -- May 7, 2015 column


Republican Carly Fiorina has never held elective office, although not for lack of trying.

In 2010 the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard sank $5.5 million of her own fortune into her Senate bid in California against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. Despite a Republican wave nationally, Fiorina lost.

So, when she announced her presidential bid on Monday, Fiorina tried to make a virtue of her inexperience.

“Our Founders never intended us to have a professional political class,” she said in a video. “They believed that citizens and leaders needed to step forward.”

Welcome to yet another presidential campaign in which amateur candidates hope voters will overlook their lack of political know-how, and no candidate admits to being a politician.

Fiorina isn’t the only GOP presidential candidate who’s starting at the top. Ben Carson, author and retired pediatric neurosurgeon, has never held or even run for office.  

“I’m not a politician,” Carson said Monday in Detroit, launching his campaign. “I don’t want to be a politician because politicians do what is politically expedient. I want to do what’s right.”

That may sound refreshing, but our political system often requires cooperation and compromise.

As the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee is no stranger to politics. After winning  the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he quit the race. He sat out 2012.  

When he entered the presidential contest Tuesday, Huckabee chided politicians, without mentioning any names, for the common practice of holding one office while seeking another, something several of his Republican competitors are doing.

“If you live off the government payroll and you want to run for (an) office other than the one you’ve been elected to, then at least have the integrity and decency to resign the one that you don’t want anymore,” Huckabee said.

Even seasoned politicians are distancing themselves from their calling. Bill Clinton amazingly declared in an interview the other day, “I’m not in politics.” Hillary Clinton has a resume as long as your arm, but her performance in office may be a liability.

The 2016 presidential race is starting to sound a lot like 2008, when another self-styled Washington outsider won favor.

Here’s Fiorina:  “If you’re tired of the sound bites, the vitriol, the pettiness, the egos, the corruption, if you believe it’s time . . . for citizens to stand up to the political class and say enough, then join us.”

And here’s freshman Sen. Barack Obama in 2008: “If you believe that part of the problem is the failed politics of Washington and the conventional thinking in Washington, if you’re tired of the backbiting and the scorekeeping and the special-interest-driven politics of Washington, if you want somebody who can bring the country together around a common purpose and rally us around a common destiny, then I’m your guy.”

Fiorina, likely the only woman in the GOP field, is positioning herself as the anti-Hillary, and Carson, likely the only black man, as the anti-Obama. Critics say neither has a chance of actually capturing the GOP presidential nomination.

That certainly will be true if they fail to land onstage at the Republican debates starting in August.  The Republican National Committee is working on the criteria for determining who will be eligible to participate.

In presidential politics, though, hope springs. The patron saint of long shots is Jimmy Carter. In 1974, Carter was such a confirmed nobody that when he went on the TV game show “What’s My Line?” not one of the panelists recognized him. He was governor of Georgia at the time. Two years later, he was elected president.

But Carter’s presidency was lackluster and Obama’s has suffered because he lacked the political skills to deal with the entrenched powers in Washington. Voters should remember that it takes more than a fresh face to get things done.

Hovering over the non-politicians is the specter of Herman Cain. The flamboyant pizza company executive and tea party darling surged in the polls of GOP presidential hopefuls in 2011, leading Mitt Romney by 20 points. Cain’s star plunged just as quickly, and he left the race amid charges of sexual impropriety.

No outsider wants to be the Herman Cain of 2016.   

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.