A real close-up look – phony Washington D.C. ‘honorary’ tours for youth

A real close-up look – phony Washington D.C. ‘honorary’ tours for youth – No Sacred Cows

Vicki Kemper

Every year thousands of high school students from across the country get classy-looking invites to travel to their nation’s capital and see how their government works. The honor comes with a price tag: $730 for a six-day tour and $1,260 for the deluxe 11-day program – plus air fare, lunches and incidentals.

What the honored students don’t see – and something that their parents, who usually pay their way, might find more interesting than the standard “how a bill becomes a law” lecture – is how some tour groups work.

Take the Congressional Youth Leadership Council (CYLC), for example. Its certified-mail “nominating” papers have informed recipients they were exceptional students who had been chosen, along with 350 others from across the country, to represent their states as “Congressional Scholars” at a “very special week” in Washington. The letters didn’t tell them they would be among 9,000 students attending one of 24 “special” tour weeks a year conducted by (CYLC), that it had rented their names and addresses from a national survey firm or, according to press reports, that at least two D-average students and one expelled gang member are among those so “honored.” Each year the council sends out more than 100,000 letters to students.

A lot of the money coming in to CYLC is passed on to the for-profit National Capital Resources (NCR), a management and marketing firm. NCR is run by Richard Rossi and Barbara Harris, the founders of CYLC and, until recently, its officers and 40 percent of its board of directors. Harris still serves on the board. NCR’s sole function until recently was to manage and market CYLC’s programs. It now has “one other major client,” according to CYLC Executive Director John Hines: the nonprofit National Youth Leadership Forum, a similar program also founded by Harris and Rossi.

A bill recently introduced by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and cosponsored by Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) would require groups like CYLC, the Close Up Foundation, Presidential Classroom For Young Americans and Washington Workshop to explain how participating students were chosen and how their money is spent.

What’s behind the bill, which would impose a sort of truth-in-advertising requirement on the democracy-in-action business, is a combination of what Sen. Dole called “questionable recruiting practices” by CYLC and no small amount of senatorial embarrassment. The resulting legislation is a consumer protection measure that would also give members of Congress more information about organizations that use their names.

For years CYLC has persuaded members of Congress to “preside” on its “honorary congressional board of advisors.” Dole and Metzenbaum, along with more than half of their colleagues, signed on; the council’s recent mailings refer to “the over 270 members” of its honorary congressional board by name.

But after Dole learned of CYLC’s recruiting practices he disassociated himself from the organization and wrote a “Dear colleague” letter urging other members of Congress to do the same. Decrying the group’s “audacity to blatantly deceive a member of Congress,” Dole said “its misleading practices persist[ed]” even after it had assured him otherwise. ,

Faced with Dole’s objections and pending legislation, CYLC has begun to mend its ways. As director John Hines puts it, “There was a chance some people would have gotten the wrong idea” about the council’s program. Dole now says minor changes to CYLC’s materials have “resolved [his] concerns,” but Metzenbaum remains troubled by CYLC’s business practices.

According to its 1991 tax return, CYLC grossed more than $6.3 million that year, with 98 percent of that coming from student “tuition.” In an interview, Hines says that “about 60 percent of students’ tuition is consumed directly while they’re” in Washington, while the remaining 40 percent finances CYLC’s “program preparation, overhead” and the like.

Metzenbaum’s bill, the Educational Organizations Disclosure Act of 1993, would require CYLC and similar organizations to disclose how students are selected and provide them (and Congress) with a breakdown of how their fees are spent. it also would prohibit discrimination on the basis of physical disability or inability to pay.

“We don’t have any problem with the bill,” Hines says, “but Sen. Metzenbaum’s staff seems to believe we’re doing something wrong over here. And we don’t understand that.”

COPYRIGHT 1993 Common Cause Magazine

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