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Editorial: Citizens Alliance

Who profits?

The head of Citizens Alliance, a


if you apply the term charitably, has expressed indignation that the state is investigating the group's finances.

Maybe Christian DiCicco, 35, feels that way because, as the executive director of Citizens Alliance, he's been driving a Cadillac Escalade provided by the charity. But those of us paying for our own rides think Attorney General Tom Corbett's probe is long overdue.

Citizens Alliance, the South Philly group founded by aides of former state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, has operated as Fumo's personal piggy bank for years. There is ample evidence coming out of Fumo's federal corruption trial that the nonprofit spent lavishly on purchases that had nothing to do with charity.

Why, for example, did the charity need to purchase power tools for Fumo? Why did it pay for a lawsuit against one of Fumo's political enemies? And why has it shelled out $2 million in legal fees arising from the federal criminal probe?

The attorney general could end up asking a judge to strip Citizens Alliance of its nonprofit status. The court could then appoint a trustee to return some of the group's $18 million in assets to donors, or distribute the money to other charities.

Corbett's scrutiny is well-founded, given the reported abuses of the group's charitable mission. Such action also should serve as a wake-up call to other elected officials, who too often use nonprofits as a way to ingratiate themselves with constituents or get cozy with supporters.

At the very least, charities tied to elected officials raise ethical questions about whether some donors are trying to buy access.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in 2001 established Operation Good Neighbor Foundation to help faith-based groups and others combat poverty and social problems. It later came under fire for accepting donations from a developer who'd received a government contract for a riverfront development project in Chester championed by the senator.

Santorum's campaign finance chairman also served as a paid staffer for the charity. Questions were raised about Operation Good Neighbor's spending about 36 percent on program grants, instead of the recommended 75 percent. It is no longer listed on the state's register of charitable organizations.

Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) this fall hosted a fund-raiser for the Johnstown Symphony that was underwritten by defense contractors Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Classical music and weapons of war might seem incongruous.

In this case, a new federal law requires disclosure of such donations made in honor of House and Senate lawmakers. But it still has the appearance of contractors trying to curry favor with Murtha, who holds a powerful post as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee.

When elected officials have strong ties to charities, there is the potential for good intentions to become twisted to other purposes. The state attorney general should pursue more of these cases.