$1 million Moonie mystery

Houston Chronicle/June 8, 2006
By Rick Casey

IT was a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.

The phone rang on my desk, waking me from a reverie I don't remember.

"Casey," I said, hoping to sound like a private eye.

The guy on the other end really was a private eye. Not Garrison Keillor's "Guy Noir," but a Virginia electronic gumshoe named Larry Zilliox.

Maybe you have a hobby. Zilliox's is keeping tabs on the sprawling empire of the world's wealthiest self-described Messiah, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

In the course of his probing, Zilliox came across an odd entry in the most recent tax filing of the Washington Times Foundation, which is associated with the conservative newspaper founded in 1982 by Moon.

The document was dated mid-2004 and included a list of organizations to which grants had been made.

A million bucks to Houston?

Three received grants totaling $9,000.

The New York headquarters of Moon's Unification Church received $11,200.

Another of Moon's organizations, the American Family Coalition Inc., received a grant of $254,500.

Then came the grabber: a whopping $1 million to the Greater Houston Community Foundation.

Why would Moon's Washington Times Foundation give a million bucks to Houston?

Zilliox said he figured I'd have a better chance of finding out than he would.

Maybe he was right.

I decided to take the direct approach.

I called the Washington Times Foundation, but the number listed on its tax form was no longer working.

The Bush connection

I called the Washington Times and asked for the foundation. I reached the voice mail of a separate foundation, but my call was not returned.

I located two of the officers of the foundation at the Washington Times and another at UPI (also owned by the Moon organization), but my phone calls and e-mails went unanswered.

So I called Steve Maislin, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Community Foundation.

He wasn't in, but I left a message asking why the Washington Times Foundation would give $1 million to his foundation. He called and left a message in return.

He couldn't legally tell me, he said.

Later I reached Maislin and asked him if he could point me to the law that bound his lips. He said he misspoke.

"I meant that under the law it's not a public record," he said. "We're not required to disclose donations in or grants out in our tax returns. We don't as a matter of policy."

Actually, they do report the grants they give, as we will see below.

He said some people who give money want it kept private so they won't be badgered by fundraisers.

Zilliox had a theory. He figured Moon gave the money to the Houston foundation as a pass-through to the presidential library of the elder President Bush.

It wouldn't be the first connection between Moon and Bush. In 1995 Bush was handsomely paid to make six speeches to Moon-related groups in Japan.

The next year he would go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to celebrate the opening of a new Moonie newspaper there.

Zilliox's notion turned out not to be an idle theory. The long list of grant recipients listed in the community foundation's tax return that year included the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation at Texas A&M.

The amount: $2,132,471.

So I called Rod Thornton at the Bush library foundation.

He hesitated for a moment, then explained that the donation from the Greater Houston Community Foundation came from proceeds from Bush's 80th birthday celebration in 2004, which included a huge party at Minute Maid Park and a fundraising extravaganza to benefit three of the former president's favorite causes: his library, the Points of Light Foundation he founded, and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

M.D. Anderson received $4.4 million from the Greater Houston Community Foundation that year, and the Points of Light Foundation received $1.8 million.

One call remained, to Jim McGrath, a former speechwriter for the former president who still serves as a family spokesman.

He explained that the money raised through Bush's birthday bash was funneled through the Greater Houston Community Foundation because of its tax-exempt status.

And did $1 million come from the Washington Times Foundation?

"We're in an uncomfortable position," he said. "If a donor doesn't want to be identified we need to honor their privacy."

I asked him about another part of Zilliox's theory: that the donation was made to help persuade Bush's son, the current president, to grant Moon a pardon for a 1982 felony tax evasion conviction that had put him in prison for 13 months.

Moon had applied for a pardon from the elder president Bush, but withdrew the request.

"If that's why he gave the grant, he's throwing his money away," said McGrath. "That's not the way the Bushes operate."

He added, "President Bush has been very grateful for the friendship shown to him by the Washington Times Foundation, and the Washington Times serves a vital role in Washington. But there can't be any connection to any kind of a pardon."

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