NOTHING TO SEE HERE

10.05.15 5:30 AM ET

Carly Fiorina’s Mystery Foundation

The Fiorina Foundation is run by an organization that has distributed funds to Planned Parenthood. Oh, and the Fiorina Foundation doesn’t appear to exist.

Carly Fiorina is so opposed to Planned Parenthood, which she believes is “pushing women into late-term abortions so they can more successfully harvest body parts,” that she would shut the government down in order to prevent it from receiving any federal funding. But she doesn’t oppose Planned Parenthood enough, it seems, to care if the organization that controls the Fiorina Foundation, her mysterious charity outfit, also distributes funds to the group—nearly half a million dollars since 2011.

In 2009, four years after Fiorina was forced to resign as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the iconic technology company, she campaigned in the Republican primary to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer for her United States Senate seat in California. Like in her current campaign for the Republican nomination for president, Fiorina’s candidacy centered on her business record, but unlike other prominent CEOs, Fiorina hadn’t been scooped up by another American institution after her ousting from corporate Babylon. Tainted goods in the technology sphere, she instead bided her time on its outskirts: serving on a number of boards—the Technology Policy Institute and the National Symphony Orchestra among them—and devoting herself to charity.

Fiorina described herself, on her campaign website, as “one of the most recognized business leaders in the world and an opinion leader” who “believes in giving back.” She was, she claimed, the “Chairman of the Fiorina Foundation,” an entity about which she provided no further information.

That information would prove hard to come by.

The Fiorina Foundation was not registered with the secretary of state in California or the county clerk in Santa Cruz, where Fiorina resided at the time. It wasn’t registered with the IRS, either. Meaning that, were it really a foundation, it would be violating the law, which demands that private foundations file annual 990 forms.

In response to a report, by the San Francisco Chronicle, revealing Fiorina’s apparent lack of compliance, she said she was in fact under no obligation to register the Fiorina Foundation, because what she called her foundation was not a private foundation at all.

The issue was too wonky to stick in a primary defined by Fiorina’s zany decision to release a commercial called “Demon Sheep,” and so her shrug of a response was effective: She won the nomination without ever having to explain what exactly she was chairman of.

When I contacted Fiorina’s presidential campaign to ask what had happened to the foundation in the five years since her Senate race, the campaign responded at first by asking me, “What foundation?”

Turns out that’s a good question.

The Fiorina Foundation does not exist. Not in the typical sense, anyway. A foundation is defined as a “nongovernmental, nonprofit organization having a principal fund managed by its own trustees or directors.” The Fiorina Foundation checks almost none of these boxes.

What Fiorina calls the Fiorina Foundation is in fact the name of the account she and her husband, Frank, have with The Ayco Charitable Foundation, a so-called “donor-advised fund,” through which they distribute undisclosed sums to undisclosed recipients at undisclosed times. 

This seemed to be news to Fiorina’s own campaign, the deputy manager of which, Sarah Isgur Flores, repeatedly assured me that the Fiorina Foundation is a private foundation before following up to say that she had made a mistake.

It was an understandable one. The world of donor-advised funds is strange, confusing and largely unregulated. 

A donor-advised fund is an account maintained on behalf of a client within what is legally classified as a public charity, though donor-advised funds have no charitable purpose. They are essentially holding cells controlled by money managers that permit donors to fork over cash or assets which they want to donate, immediately reap the tax benefits, and then determine later what charitable causes they actually want to give to.

Legally, donors give up the rights to their money the second the donation is made, but in practice, donors are given adviser status over their funds, and they tend to oversee where their money ends up. Accounts controlled by donor-advised funds are not independent entities with a CEO or a Chair or the obligation to file a 990, despite Fiorina’s claim that she was “Chairman” of hers.

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“The way they operate is like a charitable savings account,” Ray Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School who specializes in property, trusts, and estates and frequently writes about donor-advised funds, including for The New York Times, told me.

Donor-advised funds have their roots in community foundations, public charities designed to improve a specific geographic location—think the New York Community Trust, or the Boston Foundation. Community foundations started offering donor-advised funds, according to The Boston Globe, in the 1930s. They did not gain popularity, however, until the 1990s, when Fidelity Investments, a financial services company, founded the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund. Copycats soon followed, including the Ayco Foundation, founded in 1995 as the philanthropic arm of the Ayco Company, L.P. (which is now a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs).

In the 20 years after Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund’s founding, donor-advised funds grew to double the number of private foundations, becoming “the fastest-growing charitable vehicle in the United States,” according to Madoff, and holding “an estimated $25 billion” (another estimate is $45 billion) on behalf of an estimated 200,000 donors.

For donors, the draw of these funds is obvious. They provide what Madoff told me is a “double benefit”: tax relief—in the form of the immediate deduction and “the ability to write off the full value of appreciated real estate, artworks, closely held stock, and other non-marketable assets” (according to Fiorina’s 2012 and 2013 tax returns, of her non-cash charitable contributions, she gave thousands of shares of stock for Comcast, Apple, Visa, Costco, and MSCI Emerging Markets to Ayco)—and anonymity. 

Proponents of donor-advised funds argue that their existence has resulted in an increase in charitable giving, though charitable giving has been steady at about 2 percent of GDP over the last 40 years.

But for critics, donor-advised funds are a cornucopia of possible pitfalls.

They lack a so-called payout obligation—meaning that by law, there is no set time frame for when money has to leave the donor-advised fund and be put to actual, charitable use, unlike private foundations which are required to donate at least 5 percent of their assets annually. Feasibly, whatever is in Fiorina’s account could remain there for generations without ever being donated to charity—and nobody would know.

For the people overseeing donor-advised funds, there is little incentive to get the money out to charity quickly, because funds like Ayco receive management fees for as long as they’re holding on to the money or assets in an account.

“If you’re paid more when things go a certain way you do everything you can to make them go that way,” Al Cantor, a nonprofit consultant, told me.

What’s more, donor-advised funds are often, though not as a rule, connected to large for-profit financial firms like Fidelity, Goldman, Charles Schwab, or Vanguard. “Once Fidelity got in the game, it became entirely transactional,” Cantor said, lamenting that figuring out how best to donate was no longer a collaborative process as it is with community foundations. “It’s just a marriage of convenience.”

“A donor-advised fund is a great thing if you’re coming into a windfall and have a big tax obligation,” he added. “It’s definitely something for, say, the top 2 percent.”

It wasn’t until 2006 that donor-advised funds were even required to disclose how much their clients, in total, were giving to charity each year. And it’s impossible to tell which clients are giving what and to where. (Fiorina has had her account since 2000, according to her campaign.)

“I don’t think it’s secretive,” Cantor said of donor-advised funds, “but there’s a lack of transparency.”

Given the anonymity, donors may fund causes they would rather not be publicly attached to.

For eight years, from 2002 to 2010, the Koch Brothers anonymously funded a network of climate-change-denying activists and think tanks through Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, two donor-advised funds which operated out of a Northern Virginia townhouse, The Independent reported in 2013.

But also given the anonymity, it’s impossible to know which groups donors didn’t give money to. Donor-advised funds file just one 990 form for all of their donors—and they don’t disclose at whose direction they make specific contributions.

This can complicate things if you happen to be a pro-life presidential candidate and your donor-advised fund happens to sink money into Planned Parenthood, as is the case for Carly Fiorina.

In total (PDF), in 2011, $80 million was distributed by Ayco, the donor-advised fund through which “The Fiorina Foundation” operates, on behalf of its donors, to hundreds of organizations—churches, schools, museums, and also $210,450 to five different Planned Parenthoods in New York City, Connecticut, and Indiana. In 2011, 2012, and 2013 combined, Ayco distributed $467,275 to various Planned Parenthoods. In other words, Fiorina has entrusted her money to an organization that funnelled nearly half a million dollars into Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, Fiorina’s presidential campaign has been, since the second Republican debate, defined by her opposition to funding Planned Parenthood.

Asked to which causes, exactly, Fiorina was giving and in what amounts, her campaign was vague.

“Through the Fiorina Foundation, she has given to dozens of charities, including those that support veterans, education and their local community,” Flores said.

Asked to name the charities, she said, “It’s a lot of charities and I’m not going to release names which will cause a headache for some of the smaller organizations.”

Asked to at least specify how many charities there are, she said, “I’d just say dozens. I don’t have an exact number.”

There are, Cantor explained, a few reasons why someone might like the anonymity a donor-advised fund provides. “She may be very generous and we don’t know it, or she may have not given any money out of her fund but got the charitable deduction [anyway], or she may have given to organizations she would rather not be associated with.”

Flores said there was nothing to see here. Asked about the Planned Parenthood donations specifically, she said, “the Fiorinas absolutely have say over where their money goes and don’t have say over where other people’s money goes.”

The donation, Flores argued, “doesn’t implicate Carly’s money or foundation.”

Unless Fiorina’s campaign discloses the specifics regarding her account, there is no way to know what she is really up to.

But if Fiorina feels as strongly as she claims that it’s an abomination for American tax dollars—including hers—to be forced to help fund Planned Parenthood, it’s perplexing that she would elect to be associated with any group that feels comfortable giving money to Planned Parenthood by choice—on behalf of an individual or not.

Asked if Fiorina has a problem with Ayco distributing funds to Planned Parenthood, and if she’s ever lobbied them to stop, Flores said, “Carly has no control over those clients and their giving preferences.”

Asked why Fiorina doesn’t just find a donor-advised fund that vows never to give money to Planned Parenthood on behalf of anyone, Flores didn’t respond.

This is not the only time Fiorina has found herself connected to a charity whose activities would seem to compromise her pro-life beliefs.

In 2013, Good360, of which Fiorina served as the chair from 2012 to 2015, donated $18,022 to the Abortion Access Network of Arizona, part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, according to BuzzFeed. The group “provides financial assistance to people seeking abortions in the state of Arizona.” Flores told BuzzFeed that Good360 is “agnostic on causes,” and charities that received funds were chosen with “an objective system.”

Fiorina tells a good story. It was her mother-in-law’s “intense faith and courage,” she’s often said, which provided the foundation for her pro-life beliefs. Had her mother-in-law listened to the doctors who told her that her life was in danger and she needed to have an abortion, Fiorina wouldn’t have her husband, Frank.

And if Hillary Clinton and President Obama would just “watch these tapes,” Fiorina said during the second Republican debate, referring to the series of sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood, they too would be outraged at the women’s health-care provider. “Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain,’” she said, practically shaking with anger. (The footage of the fetus and the person describing the need to keep a fetus alive were edited together from separate events, and Fiorina’s critics were quick to call her description of the video a lie.)

Were they to watch the tapes, Fiorina was implying, they might be so outraged by what they saw that they would agree to stop funding Planned Parenthood through taxpayer dollars.

Though that wouldn’t stop funds from pouring in through organizations Fiorina is associated with.