WASHINGTON (AP) _ AARP and other lobbying groups are raising millions of dollars from senior citizens and then renting the donors' names and addresses to third parties. Some solicit the contributions with letters warning retirees their benefits may be in jeopardy.
Six seniors groups collected at least $18.8 million last year by renting out their mailing lists, a review of tax records shows.
Of that, roughly $16 million went to a for-profit subsidiary of AARP, which charges to share the names of its more than 34 million members with mutual fund, credit card and insurance companies that it endorses.
It's hardly alone.
Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which raised $27.6 million from donors last year, said the group's mailing list rentals are an important revenue source.
The rentals generated $1.3 million in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, according to the group's tax forms. Mahaffey declined to identify the parties renting the donor lists.
``We make it clear to our members that they have a very clear option to inform us that they do not want their names used in any other fashion, and we honor all those requests,'' he said.
A recent mailing campaign by his group, which opposes private investment of Social Security funds, provides an example of how some of the solicitations work.
``THE PUSH TO PRIVATIZE SOCIAL SECURITY IS UNDERWAY,'' the group declares in bold black print on the envelope of a recent mailing.
``Privatization would put retirement security at real risk,'' the six-page letter says, asking members to donate $10 or more to authorize a media campaign ``to counter all those who would tear down Social Security.''
In smaller print on the back page of one of the inserts is the offer to let seniors opt out of having their names and addresses shared with others. ``If you do not wish to participate in this program, please let us know by calling (800) 966-1935,'' it said.
A House subcommittee on Thursday will examine the fund-raising tactics of groups that target seniors. Its chairman said older Americans need to do their homework before donating.
``If they're talking about representing them on matters of congressional interest, talk to your congressman or congresswoman to see if these people are in fact coming into their offices, talking to them,'' said Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.
``The bottom line is if you don't know anything about them and you don't want to bother learning anything about them, don't send them anything,'' Shaw said.
AARP doesn't conduct fund-raising solicitations for specific issues like Social Security, but rather charges members an annual membership fee that helps fund its lobbying and other activities. It rents its member list to endorsed companies that provide services to its members, and informs members that their names may be shared, according to general counsel Joan Wise.
``I think it goes back really to our fundamental social welfare purpose ... that is providing benefits to fit an unmet need for the 50-plus population,'' Wise said.
AARP spokeswoman Lisa Davis said her group believes it is different in that ``the majority of dues go for information, education and community service programs. Less than 10 percent of our entire budget goes to lobbying.''
An Associated Press review of tax forms found at least four other seniors lobbies made money renting donor lists last year: the Senior Citizens League generated $417,161; United Seniors made $614,587; the Seniors Coalition took in $481,335 and 60 Plus earned $35,110.
60 Plus rents its list to companies and organizations. ``Anybody and everybody except pornographers and liberals,'' President Jim Martin said. ``I don't mean to equate the two as one and the same. ... It's just kind of a rule of thumb.''
United Seniors President Charlie Jarvis said his group's mailing list is only rented to other nonprofits with an interest in health care, like the American Red Cross and American Heart Association.
Other groups declined or did not respond to requests to reveal the renters of their lists.
The money the groups raise is helping fuel lobbying this summer over the makeup of federally financed retiree programs.
Lawmakers are considering major changes, from adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare to letting workers invest part of their Social Security taxes.
David Slautterback, a member of AARP's Wisconsin chapter, said there is nothing illegal about fund-raising targeting the elderly but he fears some of his fellow seniors are being pushed into donating too much.
``I think they count on frightening people,'' Slautterback said.
Some smaller groups say they are underdogs compared to the well-established AARP and must aggressively raise money to survive.
``We do a lot of direct mail,'' Senior Citizens League legislative director Virginia Torsch said. ``First of all, obviously, it's a fund- raiser. It also is a mechanism for people to send in letters and postcards to their congressmen on specific issues.''
The Alliance for Retired Americans, which is mostly funded by the AFL-CIO, is encouraging members to take bus trips to Canada to fill prescriptions. The group wants Medicare to cover prescription drugs and contends U.S. medications are overpriced compared with Canada.
``We're trying to get free ads, if you will, by doing public things that are impressive and/or outrageous so we will get into the news sections of newspapers and TV and radio,'' legislative director Dan Schulder said.