The $1-million donation came as the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding, a charitable gift given on behalf of Gov. Gavin Newsom last year. But unlike with other so-called behested payments, philanthropic contributions made at the request of an elected official, the source of the donation was concealed in public disclosures required under a state law meant to ensure transparency and limit undue influence in government.
The seven-figure gift was made from a donor-advised fund, a type of charitable giving account offered by some nonprofit foundations and for-profit investment firms that provides more generous income tax deductions and anonymity. The practice of routing behested payments through such accounts is little known, even to the most seasoned political insiders, but it is raising concerns with government watchdogs who say it allows unidentified donors to avoid scrutiny when making charitable contributions on behalf of politicians with whom they may be trying to curry favor.
In required filings with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Newsom’s office reported that the $1-million donation was made in April 2020 from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The foundation confirmed to The Times that the money was not from the charity itself, but was made at the request of a person or company with a donor-advised fund at the organization.
“The public needs to know who the original donor is,” said Bob Stern, a co-author of the state’s Fair Political Practices Act, approved by voters in 1974 and updated in 1997 through legislation to include behested payments. “This clearly wasn’t anticipated when the law was passed.”