Checks of $3,800 each began arriving at various Georgia nonprofits in mid-March, just as many were contemplating the impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on already stretched-thin budgets.
“Just a very nice surprise in the mailbox” is how Jeff Breedlove, a spokesman for the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, described it.
He and his colleagues waited to see whether the person who sent the donation — U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler — would reach out. When they didn’t hear from her, they assumed she wanted to keep the gift private.
Other nonprofits contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the same. None had prior knowledge that the donations, representing Loeffler’s Senate salary, were coming or received an explanation as to why they were chosen.
Loeffler faces challengers from both sides of the aisle in a November special election for her seat.
The money she donated to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation helped with COVID-19 response, and the Second Harvest of South Georgia put the contribution it received toward meal distribution for families dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The donation to the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse helped provide virtual support group meetings, including in Spanish.
The organization has 29 local affiliates that worked to continue programming during the shelter-in-place. Breedlove hopes that Loeffler’s donation will reinforce to other lawmakers that this type of work deserves government funding.
Breedlove was a Republican strategist working as chief of staff for a DeKalb County commissioner when drug addiction temporarily derailed his career in 2016.
“For one of the U.S. senators to symbolically say, ‘I believe in recovery,’ that’s a message that is being sent to the congressional delegation, that’s a message that is being sent to the governor, that’s a message that is being sent to the General Assembly saying, ‘You should also,’ ” he said.
Loeffler, who’s worth an estimated $500 million, was appointed to the U.S. Senate in December. She pledged from the beginning to donate her congressional pay — $174,000 — to charity. But she made good on her word without fanfare, even as she faced a very public controversy.
Her team shared the list of recipients after the AJC inquired. Loeffler has donated an estimated $76,000 to 20 organizations so far, representing the net pay she received during the first half of the year.
Speaking last week for the first time about the donations, she said her goal is to highlight organizations that are doing good work on issues she deems critical, such as health care, human trafficking and the agriculture industry.
“I know that I’ve been blessed to live the American dream, and I want that for more people across Georgia,” she said. “I know from my personal involvement when I was a private citizen in charitable organizations how vital donations are to their lifeblood.”
The first round of donations was mailed out March 15, days before stock trading on Loeffler’s behalf during the COVID-19 pandemic came under intense scrutiny and criticism. She was accused of using nonpublic information she received as a senator to decide which stocks to buy and sell.
Loeffler denied any wrongdoing and said financial advisers make those decisions without her input. Loeffler's transactions were investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, which closed the case last week.
Her political opponents would later accuse her of trying to deflect negative attention by highlighting instances when she used her riches to help others, such as sending a private plane to rescue stranded cruise ship passengers or the $1 million gift she and her husband made to the Albany hospital treating coronavirus patients.
However, she kept her salary donations close to the vest. Some of the organizations that received a check, such as the Georgia FFA Foundation and the state’s 4-H Foundation, were already familiar to Loeffler. Others are nonprofits she learned about while carrying out her duties as a new senator.
“One good example is the Tubman Museum, and how important culturally and historically their work is in Macon,” Loeffler said. “I saw the great need for support and wanted to highlight their work.”
Executives representing both the statewide and Atlanta arms of the American Red Cross met with Loeffler a few weeks before their donation arrived. During their meeting, they shared how the Red Cross participates in disaster response and blood collection, and how that work became more challenging during the pandemic.
Those executives wondered whether the conversation influenced Loeffler to include them on her list of recipients.
The development director at Wellspring Living, which provides housing and resources for human trafficking victims, recognized the senator's name as she sat down to write a thank-you note. The money from Loeffler went toward their assessment facility for teens that opened about a week prior to the donation's arrival.
“We were grateful,” said Mary Francis Bowley, Wellspring’s executive director and founder. “It wasn’t something that we pursued.”
A second round of 10 checks was mailed out in early May. Recipients that time included the Georgia Council of the Blind, food banks, a nonprofit that custom builds homes for injured veterans and a southwest Georgia hospital.
Five of the 20 organizations receiving a share of Loeffler’s salary are anti-abortion pregnancy centers. Such facilities have been accused of presenting misinformation to women who may not know in advance that terminating their pregnancy won’t be one of the options provided to them.
Loeffler has come out as a strong opponent of abortion and backs legislation that would limit its availability. She gave to a Cobb County-based pregnancy center in her first round of 10, then added four more after deciding facilities in other parts of the state deserved her money, too.
“I wanted to make sure that those organizations that support a culture of life, that support women, counseling, testing and ultrasounds were not overlooked,” she said.
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