Donors flock to Perzel's charity The House speaker's new foundation has raised $610,000. A fancy ball in Phila. marked the start.

Posted: March 24, 2004

A new charitable foundation set up by State House Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) has already pulled in at least $610,000, much of it from a glittering list of corporate donors with interests in Harrisburg.

Emulating State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) and the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, Perzel began fund-raising for his own nonprofit with a ball at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall Friday night.

The black-tie Speaker's Ball was dedicated to "raising a few dollars to help some charities," Perzel told about 1,500 guests. They nibbled such treats as marinated artichoke hearts and Thai chicken satay with red curry peanut sauce. Perzel's favorite band, the Beach Boys, performed.

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 tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.

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:

$50,000

Alan Kessler

Charles G. Kopp, Esq.

$25,000

Renee Amoore

Anheuser-Busch

Berger Family Foundation

Crown, Cork & Seal

Michael & Kristin Karp

Melissa Heller

McCormick, Taylor Inc.

Pennsylvania Retailers Assn.

Thomas VanKirk

Verizon

$10,000

Aqua Pennsylvania

Columbia Gas of Pa.

Elliott-Lewis Inc.

First Energy Corp.

Highmark Inc.

Home Builders Assn. of Southeastern Pa.

Independence Blue Cross

Keystone Health Plan East

Local 98, International Brotherhood of

Electrical Workers

Merrill Lynch

Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public

Accountants

Philadelphia Park

Stradley Ronan

Former Gov. Mark Schweiker

Wachovia

$5,000

AFSCME Council 13

Blue Cross of Northern Pa.

Capital Blue Cross

DMJM + Harris

First Health Services Corp.

Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce

Regional Foundation

Pa. Chamber of Business and Industry

Pa. Corrections Officers Association

Prison Health

Ross & Roll Asset Management L.P.

Stevens & Lee

Steve Schachman

The Hospital & Health System Assn. of Pa.

The Meadows, Washington County

U.S. Steel

Waste Management

Alan Yuhas

$2,500

Aventis Behring L.L.C.

Intercultural Family Services Inc.

Midwest Generation

Patrick Engineering Inc.

Pennsylvania American Water

Pennsylvania Medical Society

Sprint

Holy Redeemer Health System

Source: Program for the Speaker's Ball 2004.

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