Christmas Miracle

A media benefit helps a charity that's been questioned

The Houston Press Club gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown December 17 for its annual holiday party. Invited to come along were the members of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, so the event no doubt contained some of the shining lights of the local media community.

As always, the party also was a charity benefit -- the 70 or so attendees not only donated a total of $150 in cash, but brought along about 100 children's books to pass on to needy families.

And on hand to collect the largesse was none other than Linda Rowe, the executive director of Houston Children's Charity, the evening's beneficiary.

Rowe's name might not ring bells, but she used to run the local chapter of Variety Club International, until complaints about high-flying expense-account lunches and fund-raisers that provided more glitz than cash. (Variety Club galas tended toward pricey entertainment like Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli.)

When the Houston Press wrote about her in 1996, Rowe sued the paper, reporter Tim Fleck and various members of the Variety Club board. She dropped the suit within a year, and set up the Houston Children's Charity.

The HCC has continued the fund-raising philosophy that makes Rowe so popular in River Oaks -- this year's gala featured Paul Anka. The charity got into some hot water in 1999 when Rowe did some fund-raising for then-governor George W. Bush out of the HCC offices, in violation of federal election laws.

The HCC has tried to get the Better Business Bureau to list it as a sanctioned charity, but BBB president Dan Parsons says too much of the charity's money goes to administration. BBB guidelines say no more than 25 percent of a group's funds should go to administrative and fund-raising costs; HCC has argued that it should be exempt from those guidelines because it incurs high entertainment costs in its moneymaking efforts.

"They've never been too cooperative about giving information, but we met with them, and the bottom line is that they just don't meet our guidelines," Parsons says. "They're really -- it's just a big old party. We agreed to disagree."

The most recent year for which HCC provided info to Parson's group was 2000, and the two sides had differing interpretations of the data. The BBB's analysis showed that total revenue for HCC that year was $1.04 million and less than half of that -- 48.4 percent, to be exact -- went to "program services," or the charities the funds were designed to benefit.

Under the HCC's analysis, which used a different method of allocating the cost of its celebrity-studded fund-raisers, 70 percent of the group's budget went to program services. The group, according to its Web site, annually adopts more than 75 needy families in Houston and sponsors programs that provide artificial limbs to indigent children and computers and vans to agencies helping kids.

Rowe referred questions to HCC president Gary Becker, who said the group still hopes to work things out with Parsons. "We probably provide $1.6 million in benefits each year, and what we do falls well within the guidelines of the BBB, but what we and the BBB haven't quite figured out is how to allocate the costs of what we do for the kids and the costs of fund-raising," he says.

Rowe is not unpopular in some media circles -- her events are regularly fawned over in the society column of the Houston Chronicle. Not to mention that Rowe is now married to longtime Channel 13 anchor Dave Ward.

Still, some of the attendees at the Press Club event were baffled that a group of putative watchdogs would be in bed with Rowe's group.

Houston Press editor Margaret Downing, a Press Club board member who was at the party, says she wasn't thrilled to learn the group had given money "to someone whose activities the Press had questioned in the past and who in turn had sued us…We're an organization of journalists, and with all the charities available in Houston we end up with one whose representative has a history of questionable activities. What was meant as nothing but good intentions now sounds more like material for next year's Gridiron Show."

As it turns out, the Press Club didn't choose the HCC -- it was the Hyatt that picked the charity that would benefit from the party.

"I had said that any organization or place that was willing to pay for our party could choose the charity we would support," says Press Club president Debra Fraser, news director of KUHF-FM. Fraser says she didn't know about media reports on Rowe or her group until the day after the event.

She says she has no qualms about whether the money will reach its intended source, as opposed to paying the future appearance fee of some showbiz legend like Carol Channing or Barry Manilow. "But," she admits, "there is some kind of odd humor in all of this."

Journalists giving money to a charity that has had questions raised about it by a media outlet…We guess next year's Christmas party will benefit Kid-Care. Doesn't Dave Ward's station know something about them?

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