WASHINGTON â€” Seventeen individuals, companies and foundations â€” some with business before Congress â€” have contributed at least $100,000 each to help fund an institute tied to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Large donors to the McCain Institute on International Leadership at Arizona State University include Wal-Mart Stores, hedge fund billionaire Paul E. Singer and FedEx, according to a list publicly released after USA TODAY requested information on its donors.
Wal-Mart spent nearly $7.3 million to lobby the federal government last year on issues ranging from federal tax policy to consumer product safety, congressional records show.
McCain, a five-term senator, was the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee.
The McCain Institute, which has offices in Washington, is among the newest non-profit groups linked to a sitting member of Congress.
Despite rules banning lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers and laws limiting the size of candidate campaign contributions, corporate interests can spend unlimited amounts to donate to non-profit groups connected to members of Congress and their relatives â€” a practice criticized by government watchdogs.
Last year, lobbyists and groups that employ them reported donating $182,000 to a scholarship fund created by South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, according to a USA TODAY analysis of lobbyist reports filed with Congress. Participants in the annual fundraiser for the scholarship get to join Clyburn at a golf tournament in his home state.
Donations to congressional pet causes “provide a means for wealthy special-interest groups to find another way to throw money at the feet of a lawmaker,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, which favors more restrictions.
McCain and his family members do not set the institute policy, and the senator’s role in “fundraising is minimal and largely consists of attendance at some fundraising events,” said institute Executive Director Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.
“Senator McCain has always made policy decisions based on his objective assessment of the merits – nothing else,” said Brian Rogers, McCain’s communications director, on Friday.
The institute, launched in May 2012, promotes “character-driven leadership,” along with research and “decision-making in the areas of humanitarian work, human rights and national security,” according to a news release announcing its creation. Volker said it honors the McCain family’s public service, including four generations of U.S. naval officers.
The Arizona Republican spent 5Â½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His father and grandfather were four-star admirals in the U.S. Navy.
McCain, who sits on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, is a leading Republican figure on national security and foreign affairs. The institute has hosted debates on drone warfare, Syria and the interim nuclear deal with Iran.
The institute and McCain’s wife, Cindy, recently released a study examining sex trafficking during the Super Bowl in February in New Jersey. Cindy McCain has long worked on the issue and recently testified about it during a House hearing. The institute also operates an internship program.
Nearly $9 million in leftover campaign funds from McCain’s 2008 presidential bid were plowed into a foundation that makes annual gifts to the institute, Volker said.
Neither the institute nor the non-profit ASU Foundation is required to disclose its donors. Volker said the foundation “believes in the importance of transparency” and opted to release the names.
USA TODAY filed a written request for the donors’ identities March 12.
It’s impossible to determine exactly how much money comes from each contributor. The list, posted on the institute website late Thursday, reports gifts in broad ranges only. In addition to the contributors giving $100,000 or more, the institute said 18 individuals and groups gave $25,000 to $99,999 each.
An additional 83 contributors donated less than $25,000 each.
The “$100,000 and above” donors include Bloomberg Philanthropies, an umbrella group of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s charities, cosmetics tycoon Ronald O. Perelman and Craig Cogut, a founder of the private-equity firm Pegasus Capital Advisors. Cogut serves on the institute’s board of trustees.
Many of the donors are McCain’s political backers.
Cisco â€” whose CEO, John Chambers, served as co-chairman of McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign â€” gave nearly $804,000 last year to the institute, according to a more detailed report the company filed with the U.S. Senate as part of lobbying regulations.
The contribution from Cisco installed “videoconferencing technology to help students conduct simulated crisis management exercises at the institute’s facilities in Arizona and Washington, D.C.,” said Scott Gerber, a Cisco spokesman.
Gerber said the donation was the result of “conversations with representatives” of the institute, including Volker and Carla Eudy, who has served as a McCain political fundraiser and works as a consultant with the ASU Foundation.
Other McCain campaign veterans appear on the donor list, including ex-lobbyist Wayne Berman, a top fundraiser in the 2008 campaign. He and his wife, Lea, are listed as donating less than $25,000 to the institute to date.
Congressional rules generally allow lawmakers and their associates to solicit money on behalf of non-profit organizations, provided there is no personal gain for the lawmaker and no government resources are used, said R. Blake Chisam, a Washington lawyer and former staff director of the House Ethics Committee.
He led a high-profile investigation in 2010 into the conduct of New York Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that put a spotlight on the charities and non-profit university programs closely tied to lawmakers.
The House of Representatives censured Rangel for multiple ethical misdeeds â€” including improperly using a congressional letterhead to solicit donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center at City College of New York from contributors who had business before the tax-writing committee Rangel chaired.
Lawmakers say they continue to lend their names and time to non-profit organizations to support worthwhile causes.
Clyburn spokesman Patrick Devlin said the congressman complies fully with federal law and ethics rules and does not ask potential contributors for money.
“Although he does not solicit donations, he’s proud the foundation has provided so many young people of modest means the opportunity to earn a college education, many of them the first in their families to do so,” Devlin said.
Contributing: Christopher Schnaars