The House Appropriations Committee has added $20 million to the supplemental war spending bill to bail out a privately built brain injury treatment center for U.S. troops after the facility’s supporters gave almost $100,000 in campaign contributions to the panel’s senior Republican, according to federal records and interviews. Backers of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence said they would use only private donations to build a $60 million facility to treat and rehabilitate troops at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The cost of the project, which would be turned over to the government, included $20 million for special imaging equipment.
However, the organization building the center, the non-profit Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund led by New York real estate developer and philanthropist Arnold Fisher, failed to meet its fundraising goals. Fisher blames this on the economic downturn.
On Feb. 4, with deadlines for new construction and equipment purchases approaching, Fisher met with Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, the top Republican on the subcommittee that writes the defense budget, say Fisher and Young spokesman Harry Glenn.
Federal campaign-finance records show that Fisher, members of his family, board members of the Intrepid center and the affiliated Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York and business associates had donated at least $99,000 to Young’s re-election campaign last June and August, shortly after the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony in Bethesda.
Fisher says he and his associates donated to Young because he supports the military and veterans. “I don’t want it to sound like I have bribed a government official,” Fisher says. “That’s not the case.”
Veterans groups, such as the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, also wanted the project. “It is something that should be built ASAP,” says Paul Rieckhoff, the group’s founder and executive director.
Now, however, Fisher says the government money may not be needed after all. He told USA TODAY he had since raised all but $4 million of the total amount needed to complete the center.
“When I was $20 million short, I was worried that I wasn’t going to finish this, so I went to Rep. Young,” Fisher says. “(Now) I don’t want the money. I’m only a few million short.”
However, Fisher also says he did not want the $20 million to be publicized because “if it’s out, the contributions will stop.”
Glenn confirms that $20 million had been added to the supplemental to pay for the special equipment used at the center. Young, he says, did not know Fisher believed the shortfall was erased when the money was included in the bill.
“We’ll go back and check with (Fisher), if he says he doesn’t need the money, we’ll take it out,” Glenn says.
The $20 million was added to the bill without any mention of the project by name. The bill directs the money “to procure equipment for rehabilitation facilities currently under construction.”
The House of Representatives passed the bill, which will mostly pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, last week. It is now being debated in the Senate.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense is conducting a hearing today on military health programs, including those at Bethesda.
It is the second time in 10 years that Fisher and his family have sought government assistance through Young for building projects. In both instances, the family and their friends donated tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign fund.
In 1998, the family and associates contributed $40,000 to Young seven months after the appropriations subcommittee he led approved a $15 million earmark to resurface the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, a floating museum in the Hudson River. Fisher is the museum’s chairman emeritus.
Fisher did not donate to Young again until last summer, records show, weeks after the ceremonial groundbreaking at the Intrepid center in Bethesda.
It’s preposterous to suggest Young helped troops because of campaign contributions, Glenn says. “This is a positive thing that’s going on,” he says.
Fisher did not appear to benefit personally from the money going to buy equipment for the Bethesda treatment center, say representatives from government watchdog groups. However, “it does seem like there’s a correlation between the $20 million earmark and the campaign contribution,” says Melanie Sloan, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, says the donations and the $20 million raise the specter of campaign contributions guaranteeing access and results.
“It perpetuates pay-to-play situations,” he says.