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Some Feel Less Than Charitable About Gores’ Giving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A single line in Vice President Al Gore’s highly detailed, 34-page federal tax return, which was released publicly Monday, is transforming a yawner of a story into something awkward for a political leader who wants to be the next president.

It is the $353 Gore and his wife, Tipper, reported as gifts to charity last year on a return that shows adjusted gross income of $197,729. The donations reported by Gore, who has often lauded the value of social responsibility, add up to less than one-tenth the typical contribution amount for his income level, according to Internal Revenue Service records.

The $353 is also causing some bewilderment in philanthropic circles, where Gore has a “good guy” image as an advocate for public services and social causes.

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“I would assume that he would want to do something to demonstrate that he was being socially responsible through his giving . . . " said Stacy Palmer, managing editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “It’s not adding up for me in a way that makes a whole lot of sense.”

Declared Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy: “He is a role model and it would certainly be beneficial to philanthropy and nonprofit [organizations] to say [to potential donors] our vice president is generous with his charitable giving--and you might want to be also.”

The taxing flap sparked an unusual statement Tuesday from the vice president’s office. Aides urged that the Gores be judged by their record over many years, not just the dollar figures on their 1997 tax return. In addition, the aides said, the tax return did not encompass all the Gores’ donations, because the couple did not claim deductions for donations to their church or for Tipper Gore’s contributions of food and clothing to the homeless.

“Contributing financially to charitable organizations is certainly noble and should be encouraged and is something that the Gores have done when the resources were there,” said Chris Lehane, a spokesman for the vice president. “However, to truly judge a person’s commitment to helping others, you need to consider what they have done with their lives and how they have spent their time--and by that standard the Gores are extraordinarily committed.”

Their financial commitment, however, appeared to slip last year. In 1996, for example, the Gores gave $35,530 to charity, most of it with proceeds from Tipper Gore’s book, “Picture This,” that went to a program for the homeless.

In 1992, aided by royalties from the vice president’s own book, “Earth in the Balance,” they gave $50,000 to the University of Tennessee to endow a chair in memory of Gore’s late sister. In the interim years, the Gores did not itemize their deductions.

The Gores are indeed active in volunteer activities. Tipper Gore continues to participate in efforts to fight hunger and help the homeless.

“When you look at the core of charity, it is not just about giving money. It is not a contest to see who contributes more,” Lehane said. “It is about what you have done to improve people’s lives.”

But in the political shark tank that Gore has chosen for his professional career, the reported $353 can hardly prove a convenient disclosure. According to a survey by the pro-philanthropy Independent Sector, the average American household gave $696 to charity in 1996.

On top of that, IRS figures rank the Gores’ 1997 level far below the average for households in their income bracket.

Among households reporting income of $100,000 to $200,000 in 1995, the last year for which data are available, charitable contributions averaged $3,377. For households with $200,000 to $500,000 in income, which the Gores fell just below last year, donations averaged more than $8,000, according to the IRS. For the $75,000-to-$100,000 income bracket, the average annual contribution was more than $2,300.

“When you’re in public life and you come from a well-to-do family and your charitable giving seems to be minuscule . . . I would think it would be the butt of jokes on late-night TV,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington.

In fact, a household’s annual contributions can vary markedly from year to year, charity experts said. And even with a vice presidential salary of $171,500, it’s possible that the Gores, who pay Harvard University tuition for two of their children and private high school tuition for another, sometimes feel pinched.

Gore is not the first vice president to report vast disparities in charitable giving from year to year. When Dan Quayle became vice president in 1989, his reported contributions slipped to $2,934 from $17,304 the previous year, reflecting a loss of income from speaking fees when he served in the Senate.

George Bush, in his last year as vice president, reported charitable contributions of $12,225. In his first year as president, when he enjoyed a higher salary and greater investment earnings, the total soared to $37,272.

Ann Kaplan, research director of the AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy in New York, noted that year-to-year fluctuations in giving are typical, although even in an off year, the Gores’ return might have been expected to “add up to more than a few hundred dollars.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Giving the Gore Way

Federal tax returns filed by Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper suggest an erratic pattern of charitable contributions, from as little as $353 last year to as much as $52,558 in 1992. The vice president’s staff says some of the Gores’ contributions, including church donations, is not reflected on their tax forms.

*--*

Adjusted gross Charitable Year income Taxes paid contributions 1997 $197,729 $47,662 $353 1996 $279,285 $80,941 $35,530 1995 $235,974 $71,493 * 1994 $414,705 $142,688 * 1993 $453,907 $153,744 * 1992 $623,243 $166,979 $52,558**

*--*

* The Gores claimed the standard deduction in lieu of itemizing deductions.

** Includes $50,000 college endowment in memory of Gore’s sister.

Source: Tax returns filed by Vice President’s Office

Researched by TRICIA FORD / Los Angeles Times


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