Mulling Run for Congress, Boteach May Face Questions About His Charity

Charity Paid Salaries of Celebrity Rabbi and Family Members

Celebrity Rabbi: Among the general public, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is known as a best-selling author and advisor to celebrities like the late Michael Jackson.
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Celebrity Rabbi: Among the general public, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is known as a best-selling author and advisor to celebrities like the late Michael Jackson.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 23, 2012, issue of March 02, 2012.
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The group has top-flight supporters. The Judy & Michael Steinhardt Foundation, major funders of Taglit-Birthright Israel, gave a combined $260,000 in 2007 and 2008. The Steinhardts’ daughter, Sara Berman, was the board’s secretary in 2010 and is currently on the organization’s board of governors.

Some aspects of the organization’s finances are of the type that, depending on the circumstances, could raise questions among regulators. Boteach’s salary varies dramatically from year to year, quadrupling between 2008 and 2009 from under $50,000 to nearly $230,000, then dropping to just over $160,000 in 2010.

The organization was dormant between 2003 and 2007, and paid next to nothing in salaries in 2007, though it raised more than $100,000 that year.

Generally speaking, compensation practices like this could raise questions for regulators as to whether an executive director “is treating the charity as a pocketbook, a personal pocketbook, and he’s taking out whatever the entity can afford, or whatever he needs whenever he wants to,” said Bruce Hopkins, a not-for-profit law expert and a senior partner at Polsinelli Shughart. “It’s not supposed to be that way.”

In an email to the Forward, This World Chairman Michael Fromm defended Boteach’s varying compensation. “Given Rabbi Boteach’s vital and demanding role, he is compensated accordingly, and his salary is set by the board. However, as with any small non-profit, the amount of financial resources available for compensation can fluctuate from year to year,” Fromm wrote.

Besides his salary, annual auditors’ reports submitted to the New York State attorney general note annual expenses between $50,000 and $60,000 incurred by the charity to an “affiliated entity of the executive director.” This World did not respond to a question about the nature of that entity. In 2007, the group paid $10,000 in rent to Boteach.

Taken together, total payments to Boteach and his family described in This World’s auditor’s reports amounted to between 39% and 47% of the group’s annual revenue in 2008 through 2010.

“I am happy to say that the board is immensely proud of Rabbi Boteach’s achievements as an exponent of Jewish values and grateful for his tireless efforts to secure vital support for the organization,” Fromm wrote in an email to the Forward. He declined to respond to specific questions about the group’s finances.

When asked about Boteach’s varying compensation and the proportion of revenues paid to Boteach and his family, Jerry Goldfeder, an election and charity law expert and special counsel at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, said, “These facts raise serious questions as to the independence” of the foundation.

A Boteach charity has run into trouble with regulators on one occasion. In 1999, a British newspaper reported that England’s official charity watchdog had frozen the assets of Boteach’s organization over questions about payments a trust related to the organization had made on a home Boteach owned in Oxford. Boteach told the paper that the home was being used for charitable purposes. A January 2012 article in Bergen County’s The Record newspaper reported that the Charity Commission eventually determined that the mortgage payments broke British law. Boteach told The Record that he had repaid the funds to his organization.

Boteach’s current dual role at the helm of the charity and as a congressional hopeful could create problems for This World. The IRS enforces an absolute ban on the direct or indirect participation of tax-exempt groups like This World in political campaigns. Tax-exempt groups that violate the ban are at risk of losing their exempt status. Charity experts note that if Boteach is paid by This World to speak and write, his activities as the head of the not-for-profit could come into conflict with his political campaign.

“To the extent that Rabbi Boteach is not currently a candidate for any public office, we believe the discussion of any conflicts of interest is premature,” Fromm said. “Should Rabbi Boteach announce that he is, in fact, launching a formal campaign, the Board of Directors will of course take every precaution to ensure no conflicts exist.”

In one illustration of the potential for conflict, Boteach discussed his candidacy in his regular column, posted on the websites of The Huffington Post and Jerusalem Post, which is often linked to from the website of This World. And though This World did not link to that particular essay, Boteach’s biography on The Huffington Post’s website identifies him as the founder of This World.

Boteach also briefly discussed his candidacy at a launch event for his new book, “Kosher Jesus,” while seated in front of a banner bearing the name of his organization. (Forward Editor Jane Eisner moderated the discussion.)

“I’m not here to criticize anyone because this isn’t a political conversation,” Boteach said. “But I will say that now I am seriously considering a run for Congress…I’d like to bring a values conversation to the American political radar.”

In response to a question from the Forward about whether the statement amounted to intervention in a political campaign by This World, Fromm wrote, “don’t be silly.” Fromm noted that Boteach was speaking as the author of “Kosher Jesus,” not as the executive director of This World, and that the launch event was paid for by the publisher of the book and not by This World.

But This World’s logo appeared in promotional material for the event and on a poster behind Boteach, and an introductory and closing speaker solicited donations for This World.

“The not-for-profit organization needs to be extremely careful to make certain that none of its officers and key employees engage in partisan political activity,” Goldfeder said. Boteach could continue as executive director of the organization during his congressional campaign “if both he and his employer maintain an absolute firewall between professional duties and personal political activity,” he added.

Boteach has recently been involved in a high-profile battle over the property taxes at his Englewood home. Boteach has argued that his home is used as a synagogue, and that as such it should be exempt from local property taxes. Local officials have yet to rule on the matter.

“Up until now, for the past 12 years, I have paid some of the highest property taxes in the country. We should have been exempt from day one,” Boteach told the Forward.

Boteach and his wife purchased their home for $1.52 million in 2000, according to county documents. The Record described the residence as a “large stone house with an indoor swimming pool.” Besides the main home, the property includes a smaller outbuilding.

That home is one of at least three properties owned by Boteach and his wife. They jointly own a two-story, three-bedroom home in Miami Beach, purchased for $1 million in 2006. His wife independently owns a condo in a shorefront development in Miami Beach, also purchased in 2006 for an unknown sum. Boteach grew up in Miami.

If he wins the Republican primary and then the November general election, Boteach would be the first rabbi ever elected to the U.S. Congress. The previous hopeful, a blind rabbi named Dennis Shulman, won the Democratic nomination in a nearby New Jersey district in 2008 but lost in the general election.

But Boteach thinks he can make a difference in Washington. “The values that have dominated the American political landscape for decades is the American obsession with gay marriage and abortion, to the exclusion of nearly all others, which explains why our country is so incredibly religious yet so seemingly decadent,” Boteach wrote in his column. “It’s time to expand the values conversation and policy agenda.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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