Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The McCormick Tribune Foundation just moved into the bull's-eye

The Tribune Company is one of America's largest media conglomerates: owner of the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, the New York Daily News, other newspapers around the country, the Chicago Cubs, WGN TV and radio, Metromix, and sundry related businesses. The company's ongoing corporate soap opera has a significant non-profit-governance element which has been overlooked or overshadowed...until now: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan "has taken an interest" in the issue of whether the heavyweight Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation is being run properly as a charitable institution.

The source of this news is a front-page article in this week's issue of Crain's Chicago Business, the city's leading business newspaper. Madigan, who has previously put non-profit hospitals in her sights, seems pretty clear on the fact that being a tax-exempt organization in the U.S. is a legal and social contract not a blank check or inalienable right. Given the facts here, that does not look good for the foundation. Madigan's scrutiny may also may have an impact on the the ultimate fate of the media company, via a scenario explained in the Crain's article linked above.

That also does a decent job of explaining how the foundation and the company are so tightly linked and why, but the degree to which that is contrary to modern standards of non-profit governance and law doesn't really come across. The foundation remains basically a captive creation of the company, and that is one of the once-common practices that inspired the wholesale rewrite of federal charitable-foundation law in 1969. It also certainly violates the spirit, at least, of Illinois' not-for-profit incorporation statute.

The quote from Robert Sitkoff at Harvard could be correctly applied to the whole setup, not simply the specific transaction he's commenting on there. The foundation spokesman's rejoinder at the end of the article is feeble as a defense of the specific issue about responsible investing of the foundation's endowment, and that isn't the biggest odor about this anyway.


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