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Jewish World Review March 12, 2001 / 17 Adar, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Jesse is a victim! -- WHEN he finally faced a firing squad of reporters to explain the complex finances of his nonprofit organizations, it did not take long for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to portray himself as a victim. He has at least half of a case. He's a victim of his own ego.

Jackson said he had been targeted by right wingers. Of course he has. But conservatives are not the only people who have a keen interest in the finances of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and his other three interlocking nonprofit organizations. So do Jackson's contributors and everyone else who has had faith in his leadership.

Jackson should not be surprised to see conservatives coming after him. High-profile conservative groups like the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste were subjected to a wave of Internal Revenue Service investigations of nonprofits in the 1990s. Some right wingers then blamed left wingers. Paranoia afflicts all parties, sometimes with good reason.

When you know that people are out to get you, the sensible response is to avoid making it easier. Jackson has made it easier through his stubborn refusal to be held to the same levels of accountability that he would expect of other major public figures.

If anything, Jackson's organizations have gotten a free pass for years. Yet, as much as he demands accountability of others, he inevitably bristles when others ask it of him.

Last week, he announced he was finally opening his books to respond to IRS complaints filed against his Citizenship Education Fund by the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group headquartered in McLean, Va. The American Conservative Union, a major lobbying organization based in Alexandria, Va., filed a separate IRS complaint criticizing, among other things, Jackson's receipt of Democratic Party funds for supposedly nonpartisan voter registration work.

Frankly, I doubt that Jackson has made himself any more wealthy than a lot of evangelists on the television circuit. Still, some of the charges do raise interesting questions about Jackson's changing role in an era in which civil rights has been transformed to pursue "economic justice" in the private market.

Jackson announced he would amend CEF's 1999 tax return to reflect the omitted names of senior staffers who should have been listed as making more than $50,000. That announcement made the most headlines, because the names included Karin Stanford, who has an out-of-wedlock child with Jackson and who collected more than $106,000 that year from groups associated with Jackson. The omission an "oversight," Jackson said.

Jesse being Jesse

More stinging is NLPC's charge of "personal inurement," which means that CEF funds may have been used to pay off Jackson's mistress and help make Jackson, his family and various friends and associates wealthy. One example NLPC gives is the lucrative distributorship Anheuser-Busch, a former target of a Jackson boycott, awarded two of Jackson's sons, even though they had no experience in the beer industry.

The NLPC also charged that CEF was essentially "operating outside its tax-exempt purpose" as a "fee-for-service" business, like a business consulting service. It supposedly works like this: Minority businesspeople come to Jackson complaining that they are being shut out of particular markets. Jackson promises to help. Somewhere along the line, the minority business gives Jackson's organizations a donation. So does the big corporation that Jackson threatens to picket and boycott if it fails to kick business to the minorities.

Well, maybe. Jackson conceded that major companies might fear a boycott or government equal-opportunity action, but he said the companies also are motivated by "an opportunity for growth," a situation in which everybody wins.

And it is here that Jackson has a point. Major companies often complain of being unable to find enough "qualified" minorities for employment or subcontracting work. Jackson's staff is ready to provide lists of candidates. These candidates often happen to be "friends" of Jackson. If they were not friends before he steered business their way, they quickly become friends.

Jackson, sounding like Bill Clinton in his defense of his pardons, denied any quid pro quo with the businesses. He also denied that donations amount to hush money to keep him quiet.

Like Clinton, Jackson can probably make a good case, based on the definitions of words. One person's "bribe," it seems, is another person's "donation" and another person's "fee for service." "If Jackson wants to do this type of work, God bless him," Dan Rene, NLPC communications director, told me in a telephone interview. "But don't use a nonprofit status to do it."

Now, there's an intriguing thought. If Jackson gave up CEF's tax-exempt status, it would mean giving up an important part of his fundraising appeal, but it probably would not stop Jackson's efforts to open up minority access to larger markets. Minority executives and businesses still have a tough time gaining access to big corporate boardrooms and contracts. It has gotten easier than it was, say, 30 years ago, but America still has a ways to go before we can comfortably say we have reached full equal opportunity.

Just as other ethnic groups used whatever political clout they could muster to gain similar access in America's past, Jackson has become a go-to guy for blacks, in particular, who want to get things done.

It's not new, and it is not necessarily wrong. In many ways, it is how business always has worked. If so, Jackson should not act like he has something to hide, unless he does.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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