Perzel says he wants to help poor children get better educations and to redevelop blighted areas. Government-ethics experts, however, consider the growing number of political charities such as Perzel's troubling because they allow people, companies and groups to seek favor with elected officials beyond the reach of campaign-finance laws.
"There are distinct opportunities for abuse," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the watchdog group Common Cause.
Perzel scheduled his charity ball the night before a series of luncheons, receptions and teas at the Four Seasons hotel that raised an estimated $2 million for the state House GOP campaign committee - an amount usually associated with campaigns for governor or president.
Among the top contributors to the Speaker's Foundation Fund, according to the fund-raiser's program: the Philadelphia Park and Meadows racetracks, a lobbyist for a proposed racetrack near Pittsburgh, and a lobbyist for IGT, a manufacturer of slot machines. The legislature is poised to take up Gov. Rendell's proposal to legalize slot machines.
Crown Cork & Seal Co., a Philadelphia manufacturer of bottle caps and food containers, gave $25,000 to the fund. In 2001, Perzel engineered legislation capping the company's liability in asbestos lawsuits brought against a subsidiary it had acquired.
Even Local 98 of the electricians' union, a stalwart of the Democratic Party, contributed $10,000. "Whenever we're asked, we try to help," said business manager John Dougherty.
Perzel placed calls to corporate leaders across the state to solicit funds for the foundation, but did not use his position to threaten anybody or make promises, spokeswoman Beth Williams said. "We feel they made their donations based on the merits and what the foundation stands for," Williams said.
The Speaker's Foundation Fund plans to give educational equipment and supplies to schools, as well as to make arts and humanities grants to smaller museums, theaters and galleries around the state. It also plans financial aid to help community-development corporations rejuvenate blighted neighborhoods.
Perzel has said that the Philadelphia Foundation, which runs myriad charities, will oversee the fund. That will reduce the potential for conflicts, he said.
The speaker launched his charity in January after criticizing Fumo for the secretiveness of Citizens Alliance, which is controlled by a staff aide to the the South Philadelphia Democrat and does not disclose its donors or how awards are made. Citizens Alliance is a nonprofit that has offered services to community groups, buys and renovates residential and commercial buildings, creates neighborhood parking lots, and has helped finance two charter schools.
A major donor to Citizens Alliance was Peco Energy Corp., which paid $17 million as a result, in part, of a settlement reached in 1998 with Fumo and consumer groups that had objected to its plans to compete in a newly deregulated market. Peco made its donation public in December.
"In contrast to tonight's events for John Perzel's nonprofit that he started, I didn't call up corporations and ask for money," Fumo said Friday in a interview with Michael Smerconish on WPHT-AM (1210). "This major contribution that came from Peco came from that litigation."
Indeed, Perzel has acknowledged that he asked Peco - unsuccessfully - for a contribution to his nonprofit as soon as its gift to Fumo's group came to light.
Because of the role of the Philadelphia Foundation, the speaker's nonprofit will have "no anonymous donations; they are publicized," Williams said. "It's not managed by the speaker's employees, staff or political allies."
Alan Kessler, a prominent Democratic lawyer in Philadelphia and top fund-raiser for Rendell, was credited with raising $50,000 for Friday's Speaker's Ball, along with law partner Charles Kopp, a Republican.
"This is not to be confused with the speaker's political event," said Kessler, noting he would help his party try to take back the state House. "I buy into the speaker's intentions. It's a worthwhile cause."
Besides, he added, "the speaker plays an important role in the state."
Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writers Frederick Cusick and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.
The Largest Donors
The following individuals and organizations gave to the Speaker's Foundation Fund:
Charles G. Kopp, Esq.
Berger Family Foundation
Crown, Cork & Seal
Michael & Kristin Karp
McCormick, Taylor Inc.
Pennsylvania Retailers Assn.
Columbia Gas of Pa.
First Energy Corp.
Home Builders Assn. of Southeastern Pa.
Independence Blue Cross
Keystone Health Plan East
Local 98, International Brotherhood of
Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public
Former Gov. Mark Schweiker
AFSCME Council 13
Blue Cross of Northern Pa.
Capital Blue Cross
DMJM + Harris
First Health Services Corp.
Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce
Pa. Chamber of Business and Industry
Pa. Corrections Officers Association
Ross & Roll Asset Management L.P.
Stevens & Lee
The Hospital & Health System Assn. of Pa.
The Meadows, Washington County
Aventis Behring L.L.C.
Intercultural Family Services Inc.
Patrick Engineering Inc.
Pennsylvania American Water
Pennsylvania Medical Society
Holy Redeemer Health System
Source: Program for the Speaker's Ball 2004.