James Roosevelt of Newport Beach, Calif., the eldest son of Franklin D. Roosevelt, is sitting atop a $30-million-a-year direct-mail empire under investigation by members of Congress who accuse him of frightening the elderly about the safety of their Social Security benefits.
In only four years, James Roosevelt's National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has enrolled 4.7 million dedicated members who flood congressional offices with petitions and post cards. A separate political-action group raised almost $6 million for the 1986 congressional election campaign.
To attract all these members and large sums of money, the committee uses hard-sell rhetoric: "Will you spend 45 seconds right now to save Social Security and Medicare," reads one of the 17 fund-raising letters mailed last year. Another says: "Your Medicare protection is in jeopardy right now."
It is this kind of language that enrages some members of Congress. Not only is the Social Security system healthy, it is piling up billions of dollars in surpluses. And Democrats and Republicans agree that the popular Medicare program, which could theoretically run out of money by 1996, will be rescued long before it faces any imminent peril.
But the committee--which describes itself as "an association dedicated to the protection of Social Security and Medicare as the twin foundations of a financially secure retirement"--insists that these programs are indeed in danger. It issues dire warnings about Administration proposals such as an increase in fees paid by Medicare beneficiaries, even though such plans have been strongly rejected by Congress in the past.
Today, the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security has scheduled a hearing on "misleading and deceptive mailings to Social Security beneficiaries." Moreover, in an extraordinary show of hostility toward Roosevelt's group, 12 members of Congress have personally asked to testify at the hearing.
"When someone takes advantage of my 85-year-old grandmother, I'm sure going to try to do something about it," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who is scheduled to testify.
Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) agrees: "All they're doing is scaring people, as far as I can see. This is a fund-raising scam that degrades the Roosevelt name." He said that several people who received letters urging them to write their congressmen sent him $10 membership checks for the committee, mistakenly believing that they had to join to keep their Social Security checks coming.
The Roosevelt committee is prepared to fight back. "We don't frighten people. People are already frightened by the Reagan Administration," Landis Neal, the organization's executive director, said in an interview. "We wouldn't have millions of members if people weren't concerned about these issues."
Roosevelt, who receives a $60,000 annual salary, Neal and other top committee officials will defend their tactics in testimony today, saying that aggressive direct mail is a legitimate fund-raising technique.
Twice-yearly membership campaigns pour about 45,000 letters into every congressional district. But these mailings draw only 12 to 15 complaints in each district, said Jack McDavitt, the Roosevelt committee's director of public affairs. "We make every effort to be clear and concise but some people will get confused or misinterpret what you say," he said.
Congress, without stifling any fund-raising rights, wants to "eliminate fear as a motivating factor in attempting to solicit contributions," said Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Aging Committee. "What is the role and responsibility of an aging organization to its membership and the public?"
For most of its history, the Roosevelt committee has been essentially a mailing operation with a small Washington staff. In its most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit group, the committee indicated that it spent $21.6 million of its $29.5-million revenue in 1985 for postage and printing.
In addition to fund-raising letters, this money paid for legislative notices, a 24-page newspaper, petitions to members of Congress and a modest salary pool of $206,039 for a staff of about 10.
Its mailings are handled exclusively by BFC Direct Marketing (formerly known as Butcher-Forde), a political campaign consulting firm based in Newport Beach. The firm was paid at least $3.2 million last year, receiving 3.6 cents for each of the 89 million pieces of mail distributed by the Roosevelt committee.
BFC also serves as general contractor for the committee, charging a 15% fee for arranging printing and others services.
The IRS filing for 1986 is not yet available. Roosevelt committee spokesman McDavitt said that the organization's income last year totaled about $30 million, most of it from 2.8 million households paying their $10 annual dues, representing 4.7 million members.
And the committee is widening its focus beyond direct-mail campaigns to politics. In the last six months, it has increased its staff to 33 people and has begun active lobbying in congressional offices on issues affecting the elderly.
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"They're certainly making a presence on the Hill, and they're able to contribute money to campaigns," said Fernando Torres-Gil, staff director of the House Aging Committee. "But a number of House members are very upset that the elderly may be contributing money out of needless fear."
As a nonprofit group, the committee cannot endorse candidates. A separate political action committee was created, raising nearly $6 million for the 1986 elections and supporting 285 Democrats and 24 Republicans. It also encouraged 100,000 of its members to act as volunteers.
Now, the challenge for the committee is to convince critics in Congress that the organization is respectable.
"I would hope 10 or 12 members would not just come in at the Tuesday hearing, make statements condemning the committee and then leave," McDavitt said. "I fervently hope they will stay and listen to Jim Roosevelt's testimony and hear him answer questions."