In 1998, White House senior adviser David Axelrod co-founded a charity aimed at curing epilepsy, which his daughter suffers from. It raised $800,000 last year from corporate and private donors. The White House won't say who they are.
Lauren Axelrod, David and Susan Axelrod's 29-year-old daughter, has suffered for most of her life from a severe, debilitating form of epilepsy. Together, the Axelrods founded Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) more than a decade ago to fund research for a cure, and it has raised and distributed more than $15 million in research grants to that end. The Axelrods made a relatively rare foray into enemy territory last week to promote the cause, appearing together on Fox News Channel in a two-part profile highlighting Lauren's struggles and CURE's good works.
David Axelrod has no current official affiliation with CURE, but the organization's press materials describe him as a "CURE father and co-founder," and his White House bio says he "helped found" it. Susan Axelrod serves as CURE's chair, an unpaid position. Any viewer of Fox News piece, which is a moving account of their attempts to help their grievously wounded daughter, would understand that CURE is very close to their hearts. Which could make it fairly tempting way for the philanthropically inclined to gain access to the White House.
CURE raised $796,000 from corporate and individual donors last year and another $826,000 from foundations, according to financial statements accompanying its 2009 tax return, for a total of $1.6 million from private sources. None of those donors have been systematically disclosed, despite the obvious potential for an apparent conflict of interest were someone with a business or policy agenda before the White House to support CURE. When Gawker asked the White House for the identities of CURE's donors, a spokesman responded with a statement refusing to do so:
David Axelrod and others at the White House have fully complied with all financial disclosure, conflict of interest, and reporting requirements. This disclosure and reporting includes information about the financial interests of spouses. Susan Axelrod is not a federal employee and serves as an uncompensated Director of Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
When we asked CURE for its donor list, CEO Carmita Vaughn simply referred us to the group's public tax returns, which don't list any donors.
Neither the White House nor CURE are legally obligated to make CURE's donors public. And a White House source, speaking on background, pointed out that both Laura Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife Alma maintained charities during their time in government. But the Powells' charity, the America's Promise Alliance, does in fact disclose its high-dollar donors, and did while Powell was in office. And there's ample precedent for the notion that disclosing donors to a spouse's charity is in the public interest even when it's not legally required: The Obama Administration famously forced Bill Clinton to disclose donors to his private foundation and presidential library as a condition of nominating Hillary Clinton secretary of state.
Though the dollar amounts are lower, the Clinton situation is perfectly analogous to Axelrod's charity: The Obama White House was concerned that fundraising by Hillary Clinton's spouse could provide a secret avenue for wealthy donors to attempt to influence public policy, and that a desire for donations could cause Bill Clinton to lobby his wife on behalf of his funders. So it simply forced all the relationships out in the open, and let the public evaluate to what extent, if any, Clinton's donors could exert influence over his wife.
As one of its founders, David Axelrod is, if anything, more intimately involved in the affairs of—and invested in the success of—CURE than Hilary Clinton was in her husband's charitable endeavors. It's bizarre that the White House refuses to apply the same standard to him.
And lest anyone wonder whether wealthy donors would really view an organization like CURE as a way to gain an ear in the White House, consider this: In 2009, during Axelrod's first year as a presidential adviser, CURE's revenue from corporations, individuals, and foundations nearly tripled from 2008 levels, from $562,412 to $1.6 million. Corporate donations jumped 400% to $130,000, and individual contributions jumped 500% to $666,000. In other words, the first year its co-founder happened to be one of the most powerful men on the planet, CURE's revenue skyrocketed.
It is, of course, a very good thing that CURE's revenue has skyrocketed—it is indisputably a great project and the Axelrods are indisputably good people for their involvement in it. But it represents an obvious and glaring trouble spot for the sort of potential conflicts that the Obama White House, with its self-professed transparency agenda, purports to be sensitive to: Did any pharmaceutical companies fund CURE while Axelrod was involved in crafting healthcare reform? Did any financial firms support it while the White House was shepherding financial regulatory reform? Apparently! Pfizer, Abbot, and UBS are among the sponsors of a spring 2010 CURE fundraiser, according to this newsletter [pdf]. How much did they donate? When, precisely, did they donate it? What other industries with business interests before the White House pitched in? We don't know, because the White House—its rhetoric about transparency and disclosure notwithstanding—refuses to say.
[Photos via Getty, AP]