The John and Cindy McCain Foundation

I’ve had a few posts over the years about how what we consider to be charitable contributions often are not charitable contributions… instead, they’re ways of getting a tax write-off for paying for expenditures that one would have paid for anyway. For instance, if you have a child that likes to play basketball, in many places you have an option of paying for membership in a private club that hosts an after-school or summer basketball league, or tithing to your church which hosts an after-school or summer basketball league. The only difference between the former and the latter is the tax write-off.

Via Tbogg, this article in Harper’s that shows John McCain has discovered a similar principal:

The charitable contributions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have received a fair amount of press scrutiny. The same is not true of John McCain, which is somewhat surprising since he is essentially the sole donor to the John and Cindy McCain Foundation, and his wife is its chairman and president.

Between 2001 and 2006, McCain contributed roughly $950,000 to the foundation. That accounted for all of its listed income other than for $100 that came from an anonymous donor. During that same period, the McCain foundation made contributions of roughly $1.6 million. More than $500,000 went to his kids’ private schools, most of which was donated when his children were attending those institutions. So McCain apparently received major tax deductions for supporting elite schools attended by his children.

McCain has net assets of between $20 million and $32 million, making him the seventh wealthiest member of the Senate. His wealth is tied to Cindy Hensley McCain, his second wife and heiress to Hensley & Co., a major Anheuser-Busch distributor.

McCain has four children with Cindy, all of whom attended prep schools in Arizona. Meghan McCain, McCain’s eldest child from his current marriage, went to Xavier College Preparatory. McCain’s foundation has given about $50,000 to the school, mostly during Meghan’s years there. Donations to Xavier have dropped off since Meghan graduated (in 2003 or 2004) and went on to Columbia University. For 2006, the foundation cut Xavier a check for just $250.

McCain has two sons, Jim, who is now a private in the Marines, and Jack, who is attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Both previously attended Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, which received at least $267,000 from the senator’s foundation during the years that his sons were there.

The McCain foundation also donated money–roughly $128,000–to Christ Lutheran School, which the McCain’s 15-year-old adopted daughter, Bridget, and their son Jim both attended. In 2001, the foundation also donated $41,667 to the Phoenix Country Day School, another elite prep school where both Meghan and Jack had been students.

Collectively, McCain’s kids’ private schools rank as the largest recipient of his foundation’s money. The largest individual recipient is the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation, which received $210,000 in both 2001 and 2002. That money was earmarked for conferences that “bring together key military officers and civilian academics responsible for ethics education and character developments.”

Basically, if this article is accurate, McCain’s charity went toward improving his kid’s education. And I can’t imagine that donations to the Naval Academy hurt his son’s military career either. Which is all fine and good, and of course, other kids benefited from those donations as well. But its not charity when a donation is intended to benefit yourself and your family, even if others benefit incidentally.

And one shouldn’t be allowed to write this stuff off. For one thing, it could lead to abuses. Consider this… sooner or later, it will occur to a donor or a school (assuming it hasn’t already), that a tax deductible “charitable” donation can be exchanged for tuition.