Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Your tax dollars at work

The U.S. government, it turns out, has been passing federal-employee personal contributions on to more than 1,200 non-profits which owe federal taxes, and has issued billions of dollars in federal grants to the same delinquent charities.

This revelation comes from the General Accounting Office, as reported by MSNBC and written about by Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator. The watchdog agency says that the true number of non-profits delinquent on payroll taxes but still receiving federal-employee donations is undoubtably even higher. That's because federal law for some bizarre reason prohibits the relevant officials from checking whether charities that are to receive employee donations are up to date on their routine federal tax returns.

The GAO picked 15 of the delinquent charities at random to check out further, and concluded that every one of them was probably acting illegally -- doing things like buying a boat for the executive director while failing to pay federal payroll taxes. (And let's keep in mind that most of what is called "payroll taxes" is actually money withheld from employee paychecks.) The GAO made up a bogus charity, applied for funding from three local offices of the federal employee-contributions system, and received funds from all three with no trouble.

Ok clearly part of the story here is serial incompetence in our federal bureaucracy. But for me the bigger issue is this: the fact that fewer and fewer Americans still think non-profits to be highly trustworthy is not simply due to "a few prominent rotten apples that have made headlines" as I keep hearing people tell each other at conferences. There is a broader problem here in this sector and it is not being faced.

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