WASHINGTON – Federal employees can donate money to any of 2,000 non-profit organizations in the Combined Federal Campaign this fall, but the American Civil Liberties Union won’t be one of them.
Even though it expected to raise $500,000 from the charity campaign, the ACLU withdrew to protest a new requirement that non-profits in the campaign check their staff against three government “watch lists” of people suspected of terrorist activity.
“No amount of money is worth participating in this program. No amount,” ACLU spokeswoman Emily Whitfield said.
But about 2,000 organizations — from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the United Negro College Fund to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation — are participating in the CFC, which began in September and runs through Dec. 15. The program raised $248 million for participating organizations last year.
The ACLU and 22 other organizations, however, are fighting the new policy that calls for background checks on current and potential staff. Some have withdrawn from the program, but others will remain while urging the CFC to change its policy.
Whitfield said it would take a great amount of time, money and staff to consult the watch lists, which contain thousands of names and aliases. And if they do find a staffer’s name on the list, there is no way to verify that it is the same person, she said.
Organizations that find a match are supposed to alert the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the CFC. But what happens after that is anyone’s guess, Whitfield said.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s a huge waste of time,” she said.
Initially, many groups thought the new rule only meant they were not to knowingly hire someone who might be on the lists. But when CFC director Mara Patermaster said in a New York Times interview that charities could be dropped for not running background checks, the ACLU withdrew, despite the $500,000 it stood to earn from the program.
The coalition has written to the CFC, asking it to clarify why the policy is necessary and how to comply, and Whitfield said the ACLU expects to file a legal challenge to the policy in coming weeks.
She noted that many people are on the watch lists because they have controversial political beliefs, or may simply have the same name as someone else. And there is no way for innocent people to have their names removed from the list, Whitfield said.
The OPM, citing the threat of a lawsuit, declined to comment on its CFC regulations, but sent a copy of the letter Patermaster wrote to the ACLU when it withdrew.
In that letter, Patermaster said that after the Sept. 11 attacks President Bush prohibited Americans from having financial transactions with people suspected of having terrorist ties. That includes charitable organizations that have been used to transfer funds to terrorists and their supporters, Patermaster said.
“OPM feels a responsibility to ensure that it does not facilitate, through the CFC, the transfer of funds donated by federal employees through or to the hands of persons designated for their ties to terrorists or terrorist supporters,” the letter said.
OMB Watch, a non-profit government watchdog organization, has joined the coalition against the new security requirement.
“This puts charities in the role of government investigators, and imposes a climate of fear and discrimination,” Kay Guinane, general counsel for OMB Watch, said of the new rules.
Guinane said the lists could ultimately hurt innocent people. One name on the list, Antonio Romero, is very similar to ACLU Director Anthony Romero, she said, while a “no-fly” list of people banned from airplanes include an Edward Kennedy — which has caused problems for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts.
OMB Watch has no plans to withdraw from the CFC, but will consider litigation as a last resort.
“I think these lists could become as much of a joke as the color-coded security levels,” Guinane said.
-30- CNS 10-01-04