By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - When he wants to help out Northern Kentucky, Jim Bunning - the Hall of Fame baseball player turned Senator - doesn't need to jawbone fellow lawmakers or push a bill through a committee.
He just signs a few more baseballs.
Bunning's foundation handed out more than $15,000 last year to 40 groups, most of them in Northern Kentucky, according to Bunning's annual financial disclosure form, which became public Monday.
The forms showed Bunning also paid himself a $20,000 salary.
Senate ethics rules generally discourage outside pay, though senators are allowed to earn $22,500 in non-Senate salary, according to the Senate Ethics Manual. Bunning got approval from the committee to operate the foundation.
"It does seem a little odd," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. But since the Southgate Republican was raising the money by selling his own autographs - and not by soliciting donations from lobbyists or companies - Noble saw little suggestion of a conflict of interest.
"Jim Bunning is being paid to sign his name not because he is a member of the Senate but because he once struck out Ted Williams three times in a game," said Richard Robinson, the Fort Mitchell lawyer for the foundation.
But a spokesman for Bunning's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Dan Mongiardo, said the report raises troubling questions.
"The fact that Senator Bunning's charity has paid more to him in salary than to charitable organizations raises some very troubling questions," Mongiardo spokesman Eric Niloff said. He wouldn't say what those questions were.
Responded Robinson: "If Jim were anybody else but a member of the U.S. Senate, he would be able to keep all the money he makes from card shows for himself. What he has decided to do is use that recognition to make money for charitable purposes. He is using the power of being a baseball Hall of Famer to raise money for charities."
A three-person board decides who gets grants. Bunning is not on it, though he can make recommendations.
Members of Congress are required to file annual financial disclosure statements. Reports released Monday cover 2003.
These reports offer a broad look at a lawmaker's finances. They include assets, income and debts in wide ranges and can exclude the value of the primary residence, furniture and other items. Members of Congress also are required to report trips paid for by others, any boards or foundations they may serve on, and any gifts.
The salary for most lawmakers in 2003 was $154,700; congressional leaders make more.
Tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service show Bunning's foundation was incorporated in 1996. The forms list his wife, Mary, as president and his daughter-in-law Kay Bunning as controller.
Bunning lists himself as an employee, working less than one hour a week.
To raise money for the Cincinnati-based foundation, Bunning attends baseball memorabilia shows and signs autographs. He earned his foundation more than $44,000 last year with appearances at shows in New York City, St. Louis, and at the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
It was unclear whether that money was reimbursement for trips or a straight salary. Bunning spokesman Mike Reynard was unable to offer details beyond what was in the report.
Before he turned to politics, Bunning was a star pitcher, hurling a no-hitter and a perfect game. He pitched for the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Los Angeles Dodgers.
At last year's Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y., Bunning was signing baseballs for $30 and uniforms and bats for $50 a pop.
Bunning handed out the proceeds from such signings in gifts of $100 to $2,200. The foundation helped out churches, museums, the arts, local anti-abortion groups, and social service groups.
The $1,000 that Newport's Brighton Center received last year was one of the larger donations from an individual, said Wonda Winkler, associate operating officer of the all-purpose social services agency.
"I think he does it out of his commitment to Newport and the center, " she said, noting that the donation was given without ceremony.
Private foundations run by members of Congress are common, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Congress Watch, a watchdog group Ralph Nader founded.
"No one's ever frowned on this practice," he said.
Kentucky's other senator, Mitch McConnell, reported no extra income. He is a member of the board of directors of associates of Harvard University's Business School. He gets no pay. His wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, sits on the business school's advisory board. Chao owns a Washington property with a carriage house, and a mutual fund, each worth $500,000 to $1 million.
The Jim Bunning Foundation's top 2003 recipients:
St. Catherine of Siena Church, Fort Thomas, $2,200.
Notre Dame Academy, Park Hills, $1,100.
Brighton Center, Newport, $1,000.
Diocese of Covington, $1,000.
Grace Vineyard, $1,000
Women's Crisis Center, Covington, $600.
All other donations were $500 or less.
Source: Secretary of the Senate
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