'Funniest Celeb' Charities Get Little Aid
For all the obvious wisecracks about its name, the annual "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest has triumphed in getting some of this city's major players to cut loose with surprisingly outrageous stand-up comedy acts -- with the rationale that it's all for a good cause, of course.
It's where Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) told sorta-dirty jokes and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) snarked about her sex life. Journalists James Rosen and Matt Cooper won top honors with edgy ethnic jokes and drug humor; other winners include Arianna Huffington, Chris Matthews and Mike Huckabee. The lineup for this year's event Wednesday: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), White House economist Austan Goolsbee and restaurateur Chef Geoff.
But despite the VIP luster -- and tickets starting at $200 -- tax records and interviews show that the D.C. perennial has failed in the past five years to make any contributions to the charities for which it promised to raise money. Virtually all revenue appears to have been eaten up by the costs of putting on the one-night show, plus a year-round part-time salary for founder-CEO-host Richard Siegel and administrative expenses that charity-finance experts say are unusually high for such a small organization.
Siegel -- whose tax-exempt organization "supports children's charities," according to its IRS filings -- blames the charities. He says they failed to live up to agreements to sell $20,000 worth of tickets and sponsorships, an assertion at least one charity disputes. Ticket sales by Funniest Celebrity "essentially cover operational costs," Siegel said in a statement.
"The problem with the last few years in Washington, when we barely broke even, was the charities didn't sell even a single table," he wrote in an e-mail. "And then we had to find a new charity each time."
Charity reps said they were initially excited to sign on with Funniest Celebrity, launched in 1987 and held sporadically until the late '90s, when it gained star power. With big names and buzz, it seemed a prime opportunity to raise funds. But over the years, the night of laughs has left a trail of bad feelings.
VSA Arts, the advertised 2008 beneficiary, "to date received nothing," said Vice President Rachel Maleh, who denies that VSA agreed to sell a certain number of tickets: "We would have clearly said it doesn't work for us that way."
In 2007, Institute of Musical Traditions received "not a dime," said President Dave Richardson. He said Siegel told the group the event didn't make any money that year.
Bread for the City stood to benefit from the 2005 and 2006 events, but "it didn't reap us a return," said Development Director Kristin Valentine.
In 2004, proceeds were pledged to the Foundation to Eradicate Duchenne, but it was "a wash for us," said President Joel Wood. "We had to do a lot of the work. Expenses were high. It wasn't worth it."
Funniest Celebrity's tax filings show only one charitable grant from 2004 through 2007: $3,750 to Hospitality House, the Bay Area community center named as beneficiary for a contest spinoff that Siegel produced in San Francisco in 2007.
Where'd the money go? The event, most recently at the D.C. Improv, has generally featured a cocktail buffet for sponsors, who this year are expected to pay at least $5,000 for a table, and complimentary drinks for the volunteer judges (who have included authors of this column and other Post writers). Ticket-buying guests pay separately for dinner and drinks.
The 2007 tax forms said the event collected $45,850 and cost $33,638, leaving $12,212. Siegel, listed as CEO and sole employee, listed his compensation as $14,859 and an average workweek of 30 hours. Further costs -- including $3,627 for "office expense," $1,508 for telephone, $1,705 for meals and entertainment, and $1,068 for "vehicle expense" -- totaled $11,000.
In 2006, Siegel drew a salary of $9,845 and rang up $7,690 in expenses separate from the show (a production that grossed $62,400, he said on tax forms, and netted $14,688). In 2005, he earned $17,880 and rang up $10,688 in expenses. Siegel told us the cost were "reasonable and . . . in keeping with IRS foundation rules." He said office expenses have varied: "One year we rented specific space. That was not worth the cost and we didn't repeat that. [And] one doesn't buy a computer for the group every year."
Dean Zerbe, managing director of tax consultants Alliant Group and a former top Senate staffer with expertise in nonprofits, said Siegel's arrangement with the charities seems unconventional for a tax-exempt fundraiser. "When you're telling me it's the charity that needs to do all the work and get everybody there for the monies. . . . It looks and feels more like he's an event planner and not a charity. Just go be an event planner and pay taxes like everybody else."
One event did pay off for the beneficiary. In 2003, before Funniest Celebrity won tax-exempt status, D.C.-based dropout-prevention group WAVE partnered with Siegel and grossed $200,000, netting $110,000 for itself, according to the beneficiary's records. But WAVE "took a very hands-on approach," handling all sponsorship recruitment and ticket sales, said Vice President Deborah Stine. "All the money came directly to us, then we paid the event expenses," including Siegel's fee of $31,000, and a similar amount to a separate event planner.
But by the next year, when Funniest Celebrity was a 501(c)(3) and Siegel was running the show, it lost $12,000, according to his tax filings. It's not unusual for a fundraising event to fall flat, said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, but "if people are attending these events year after year with an expectation that some charity is benefiting, and this isn't happening, that raises some questions."
Zerbe said the pattern of failure -- much of it visible in public documents -- also reflects poorly on the charities and the VIPs who have lent both drawing power and credibility, as entertainers and board members. "There are a lot of folks who didn't ask the right questions," he said.
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