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Simon Bristles at Criticism of His Charitable Work

October 19, 2002|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

In a television ad released this summer, Bill Simon Jr., the wealthy investment banker and Republican gubernatorial candidate, is seen shaking hands and chatting with runaway teenagers at a Hollywood shelter.

Although the scene was staged to send a specific message -- meet the multimillionaire who feels compassion for the needy -- it was a familiar setting for Simon.

Since he was a youngster, the 51-year-old businessman has volunteered at several shelters and clinics, including a stint at a hospital in Africa during college. He has also donated millions of dollars to charity through a private foundation established with his wife, Cynthia.

Simon's friends say his charitable zeal is more than a campaign selling point. They say it is a crucial part of his life, instilled by his parents and sustained by his deep religious beliefs.

Although his charitable assets are relatively small -- compared with those of bigger, long-established foundations -- Simon has been a consistent supporter of his favorite causes.

"I think he is trying to live the Gospel," said Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, Simon's pastor at St. Monica Church in Santa Monica.

Since he announced his bid to unseat Gov. Gray Davis, Simon has been criticized for some of his charitable donations to conservative religious organizations, though those represent a fraction of his giving.

In the summer, the Davis campaign accused Simon of siphoning money away from his father's charitable foundation, a charge Simon calls ludicrous.

Simon's propensity for charity work grew out of the examples set by his mother, Carol, and his father, William E. Simon Sr., a conservative Catholic and Wall Street powerhouse who served as Treasury secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

The elder Simon amassed a fortune estimated at $500 million as a pioneer in the field of mergers and acquisitions. He started the William E. Simon Foundation and donated much of his wealth to conservative church organizations, shelters for abused women and children, and athletic facilities for youngsters.

Starting in the 1970s, the elder Simon volunteered at Covenant House, a shelter for runaway teenagers in New York, and took his children along. Before he died in 2000, he put his two sons and five daughters on the board of his foundation and required that each of them spend at least 150 hours a year volunteering in the community.

As a high school student in New Jersey, Bill Simon Jr. became a mentor through the Big Brother program. He volunteered at Covenant House, showing up every Wednesday night to serve meals and play basketball with the teenagers.

Since moving to California in 1990 to head the Western office of the family investment firm, William E. Simon & Sons, Simon and his family have donated thousands of dollars to Covenant House in Hollywood.

The facility has honored Simon by giving him the title of chairman emeritus and, in 1999, naming a new 24-bed transitional living center after him.

In the last few years, Simon formed his own charitable foundation. Between 1997 and 2000, the only years for which records are available, the Cynthia L. and William E. Simon Jr. Foundation donated $2.6 million to charity. As the only trustees of the foundation, Simon and his wife choose the contribution recipients.

The bulk of the donations have gone to mainstream charities, such as United Way and Catholic Charities, and colleges, including the candidate's alma mater -- Williams College in Massachusetts.

"People give to the causes they feel a strong connection with," said James Ferris, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at USC. "It's a very personal act."

Between 1997 and 2000, United Way received about 20% of the foundation's donations, or about $516,000, according to foundation records.

Catholic Charities, a national organization that funds a variety of services for people of all faiths, received roughly 10% of the foundation's contributions during that period, or about $223,000.

The foundation also gave about $130,000, or about 5% of its funding during that period, to local Catholic churches and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Some of Simon's contributions have gone to organizations that espouse a deeply conservative political ideology or fundamental religious beliefs.

Foundation records show that in 1999 he donated $950 to the Religious Heritage of America Foundation, which describes its mission as working to "restore the biblical and moral roots of America by merging thought with action, thereby infusing the culture with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ."

The foundation's donations also reflect Simon's advocacy of entertainment that is free of explicit sex, violence and foul language.

Simon, along with his father and brother, helped finance PAX-TV, a family-oriented cable TV channel that now reaches 86% of U.S. television households.

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