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Charity should begin with the speaking fees

Many celebrities are making a good buck at fundraisers.

April 17, 2009|JOEL STEIN

I'll take money from anyone. For years, I wrote articles for a magazine put out by Marlboro that was so insidious it was about healthy outdoor living and didn't allow me to mention smoking. I've written for Playboy. For all of college, I even took money from my parents. And I've heard that this newspaper is largely owned by Sam Zell.

But when the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish charity, offered me $500 to speak at a fundraiser in Las Vegas, I did not take their money. First of all, as anyone who has read my columns knows, I am clearly pro-defamation.

Also, although I don't think Jews believe in hell, I think they would create one for someone who took money from a charity to speak at a fundraiser.

So, although I did not take the cash, I'm pretty sure I cost them far more than $500 when I mentioned in my speech that I had just had Al Jazeera come to my house to interview me. Once you do enough E! shows, you really can't justify turning anyone down. I can't wait to see "The 101 Hottest Jews Who Control the Media."

When I talked to the people who ran the Vegas charity, they informed me that almost everyone accepts the money. In fact, sometimes people who host events in their home charge the charity for their costs. I was expecting them to tell me that the people who receive charity charge to deposit the checks.

At first I feared this was another bad Madoff-type moment for the Jews. Then I made some calls and found out that nearly every charity pays celebrities to host their events. A church in my wife's tiny hometown of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., has paid several older actresses to show up at fundraisers. I was shocked, partly because famous people got paid to help others, and partly because people give more to their church if people who were in "Dynasty" were there.

Thanks to a 2003 scandal involving an events promoter, we found out that Ray Charles, Gerald Ford, Bill Cosby, Natalie Cole and Paul Anka received tens of thousands of dollars for appearing at charity events. And it hasn't slowed down. I called a few charities and quickly got a dozen names of celebrities, some of whom had recently scored $10,000 or more for showing up at fundraisers. At least one even demanded that his introduction make it sound like he was doing it for free. I briefly considered having my intro say I was paid $100,000, to make me look a lot more important. I may listen to too much rap music.

When I called the celebrities' publicists, most didn't call me back. Others said they had no record of the events. Except Joan Rivers.

Rivers, who gives a lot of her money and time to her personal charities -- God's Love We Deliver, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Melissa Rivers -- thought I was an idiot for not knowing that this is how the fundraising circuit works.

"It's all very nice to do it for free, and then my accountant calls me and says, 'You can't go to Connecticut this year, you have to rent it,' " she said. "I always give a 'charity deduction,' because you feel so guilty. But you have to say, 'If they didn't have me, they wouldn't have filled the room.' " She also told me that if you write a bestseller, you can get in on this action straight away.

Rivers is not wrong. I understand that paying stars can be a net gain for a charity. And I understand that lots of celebrities have their own causes they work for, for free. And I understand that the whole point of this column is to subtly lump me in with celebrities.

But I still think it's not fair for speakers to get both money and the goodwill of people who assume they showed up for free. It's wrong to advocate a cause and then suck money out of it. In fact, any of those words in any order is wrong.

So more charities are going to have to shame celebrities who ask for money. Copy the canceled checks. Post 'em on smokinggun.com. Give them to a reporter so he or she can write about it. Although, by now, we're desperate enough to try to cash them instead.

Doing this might mean fewer celebrities will show up, but I bet most of them will still do the events, and maybe for free, or at least with a hefty discount. Like Rivers, for instance, who is doing an event for the United Jewish Appeal this week. And she donates her paintings and items from her jewelry line to silent auctions. "I don't know how many poor people have a Joan Rivers painting from a silent auction," she told me.

The problem isn't greed, it's what we've all decided is acceptable. Though I sure am glad the ADL didn't offer me $5,000.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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