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Charity Reaches for Stars--Critics Say It Falls Short


Soon after AIDS patient Ryan White won his poignant battle to remain in public school in Indiana, a group called Athletes and Entertainers for Kids signed on as his national fund-raising arm.

Together they became a potent force on the Hollywood charity circuit.

The entertainment community turned out in droves in 1988 for a glitzy benefit at the Century Plaza Hotel headlined by pop star Elton John, with tickets going for as much as $2,000 apiece.

In the following year, Athletes and Entertainers put on an equally spectacular fund-raiser honoring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The tribute to the retiring basketball legend was broadcast on national television.

Last spring, former President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan attended an Academy Awards night party to benefit the charity. It also was White's last public appearance.

Seven months since his death, White's name still appears on Athletes and Entertainers' fund-raising appeals, and his mother, Jeanne White, remains among its biggest boosters. But now the organization's achievements as well as its fiscal management are being called into question.

John, who was at White's bedside during his final hours, has severed his ties to Athletes and Entertainers because a $25,000 donation he made to the charity for use by the White family was never turned over to them.

Relations between the two camps soured even further last week when Athletes and Entertainers named John a recipient of its first annual Ryan White Memorial Award, without his advance knowledge. John's management said the singer does not want the award and will not attend the presentation ceremony.

John is not the only one who has sought to distance himself from the charity. Two of the largest hospitals that specialize in treating youngsters, Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and Childrens Hospital in Hollywood, have significantly curbed their dealings with Athletes and Entertainers, reportedly because of unkept promises by the charity.

Athletes and Entertainers was also barred from raising funds in the city of Los Angeles for two months this year for failing to file required financial disclosure reports. The state attorney general's registry of charitable trusts cited the group in May for the same failure.

Elise Kim, the group's founder and executive director, conceded in a recent interview that the charity has been guilty of some sloppy bookkeeping, but denied anything improper has occurred and said efforts are under way to improve the charity's management with the help of the Nissan Motor Corp. of America.

"We haven't done anything wrong," she said. "We take an incredible amount of pride in this charity and the things we are doing."

Mathematical inconsistencies and apparent errors make it impossible to fully decipher Athletes and Entertainers' finances. The charity reported raising $465,426 in fiscal 1988-89, the last time it gave a financial accounting to authorities. After losses from two major events were subtracted, the group reportedly was left with $393,000 in revenue.

About $108,000 went for charitable purposes, according to Athletes and Entertainers. Another $117,000 was used for expenses, and the remaining $167,000 was held in reserve. The bulk of that money, $115,000, is stored in a short-term certificate of deposit, the charity said.

On the basis of that accounting, 28% of its revenue went to program services in fiscal 1988-89.

"That's a very poor showing," said Robert D. Burns, general manager of the city social service department. Burns said the low percentage of funds dedicated for charity and the high percentage held in reserve indicates "irresponsible management."

One of Kim's supporters, Salvatore J. Iannucci, an executive recruiting specialist who has served as an adviser to Athletes and Entertainers since its inception in 1986, said the group is at most guilty of ineptitude.

"Elise may have taken on more than she could handle," Iannucci said. "But her intentions are noble and she now realizes she is in over her head."

But critics in social service agencies and within the philanthropic community contend that Athletes and Entertainers, for all its high profile fund-raising activity and access to the rich and famous, has surprisingly few achievements to its credit.

While it once pledged to raise $500,000 to $1 million a year to fund day-care and live-in centers for patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome and their families, it has actually pursued a far more modest agenda of children's parties, educational seminars, career days and hospital visits.

Alice Drucker, head of a social service agency called the Los Angeles Youth Program, which runs a summer camp for low-income and handicapped children, a volunteer support program for chronically ill children and their families and a medical transportation service, said groups such as Athletes and Entertainers "trivialize" the problems facing sick children.

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