The Austin Chronicle

Terror Hysteria Burdens Local Charities

By Rachel Proctor May, September 10, 2004, News

Central Texas terrorists, be forewarned: None of the charitable donations raised by U.S. government employees through this fall's Combined Federal Campaign will go toward your evil deeds. This according to a new rule by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which runs the CFC, that requires all participating nonprofit organizations to check its employees' names against terrorist watch lists. For local nonprofits, this means that they must either give up their share of the CFC pie – about $640,000 in Central Texas last year – or agree to a requirement that many feel violates their employees' rights.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do," said Diane Fanning of Another Way Texas Shares, an umbrella group that collects funds for progressive nonprofits through the CFC. "Either we follow the rules, or we don't participate. Right now we're just in a 'wait and see' mode."

This is a position shared by most local nonprofits. The notable exception is the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which chose not to comply, and instead dropped out of one of the largest charity drives in the country.

The CFC is designed to encourage charity by making it easy for people to give. Federal employees – which in Central Texas number about 10,000 at the IRS, Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, and U.S. Postal Service, among other agencies – are given brochures listing nonprofits approved to receive money through the campaign. Employees check off which organizations should receive a share of their donation, give the CFC a check, and the campaign handles the rest. Last year, the campaign raised close to $250 million nationwide.

The trouble started in January, when nonprofits applying to be included in the fall campaign (which began Sept. 1) saw that for the first time they would be required to affirm they would not employ people on terrorist watch lists. A few U.S. nonprofits have been accused of sending money to overseas groups the government classifies as terrorist.

But these lists of individuals, generated by multiple government agencies, have come under fire for being confusing, duplicative, and just plain wrong. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., for example, has repeatedly been kept from flying because his name is on one of them. And of course, many find the whole concept of government watch lists to be creepy and Orwellian in the first place.

Nevertheless, there wasn't much stir at the time: Civil liberties groups believed they could take a don't-ask-don't-tell approach – they wouldn't knowingly hire terrorists, but they also wouldn't violate people's freedom of association and other constitutional rights. But when the head of the OPM confirmed in July that funded nonprofits are in fact required to proactively check employees' names against watch lists, the national ACLU publicly pulled out of the campaign, taking state chapters with it. "The ACLU absolutely cannot participate in a federal workplace giving program that requires us to check employee lists against notoriously inaccurate terrorist watch lists," said James Canup of the ACLU of Texas.

However, the ACLU is a large, well-known membership organization for whom CFC funds are a drop in the bucket. Last year only $4,000 of the Texas chapter's $800,000 budget came from the CFC. (And indeed, the publicity generated by the ACLU's stand will probably help the group raise more non-CFC funds.) But even though the CFC pie is not exactly huge, small groups with less visibility will still think twice before forgoing CFC funds, especially if their primary mission is not civil liberties. Some groups, though, may be willing to make that sacrifice. "It would financially hurt us but it wouldn't be something we couldn't overcome," said Randall Ellis of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, which has discussed the possibility of pulling out of the campaign.

But Max Woodfin of Earth Share of Texas, an umbrella group like Another Way, said that pulling out of the CFC would be counterproductive. "The CFC is an opportunity for federal employees to support the charities of their choice," he said. "We don't think it's in the best interest of either the federal employees or the charities we represent to interfere with that relationship." He added that his group had only two employees, meaning he could meet the bureaucratic requirement without violating anyone's civil liberties. "We are very confident that neither of us is associated with any terrorist organizations," he said.

No one can say for sure how (or whether) the OPM will check up on nonprofits to ensure compliance. If enforcement is lax, many groups will no doubt feel comfortable taking CFC funds even as they fight the rule on other fronts, such as by joining or helping promote a lawsuit ACLU is putting together to challenge it. But even if the rule has little practical impact on the day-to-day operations of small nonprofits, that doesn't mean it won't leave its mark.

"There's no guarantee that these lists are accurate. There's no way to know how your name got on them. And there's no way to know how to get your name off them if there's been a mistake," said Canup. "Their benefit to the war on terror is at best marginal. It just creates a climate of fear and intimidation in the country."

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