tampabay.com: Quasi-governmental missing kids center enjoys key exemptions from federal rules.
In many ways, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is a quasi-government agency. Mandated by Congress, the center has access to the FBI's missing, wanted and unidentified persons files. It operates tip lines for the Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It gets more than half of its money from U.S. taxpayers.
Yet the Virginia-based center, with regional offices in Florida and three other states, is a private nonprofit organization exempt from federal salary caps. And that has enabled the center's president, Ernie Allen, to command a salary among the highest in the nonprofit world.
In 2008, the latest year for which records are available, Allen made $511,069 as head of the center and its international affiliate. He also received $787,126 in deferred compensation and underfunded retirement benefits, as well as $46,382 in nontaxable benefits — a total of $1,344,567.
Allen's base salary was higher than that of the top executives of two other nonprofits — the American Red Cross and the Smithsonian Institution — that also get substantial funding from the U.S. government. Both have budgets many times greater than that of the missing children's center.
Allen's compensation "does appear quite high,'' says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.
Of the more than 500 nonprofits the institute rates, Allen's total compensation ranked third-highest — exceeded only by that at the Boy Scouts of America ($3.97 million) and Memorial Sloan-Kettering ($3.67 million), one of the world's top cancer centers.
"I think it doesn't pass the smell test with donors," Sandra Miniutti, Charity Navigator's vice president, says of Allen's compensation. "It's very hard for people to wrap their arms around huge salaries, especially right now when we're in a recession.''
The center's 350 employees include 11 who are paid more than $125,000. And in 2006 and 2007, the center paid medical claims totaling $76,572 for co-founder John Walsh, whose son Adam was murdered in South Florida in 1981. Although Walsh is no longer an employee, his wife is an unpaid board member and their family is covered by the center's health plan. Walsh, host of America's Most Wanted, still acts as a spokesman for the center .
"I was blown away by the national center,'' said DCF Secretary George Sheldon, who has visited the Arlington, Va. headquarters. "They have housed at the center (agents) from homeland security, the FBI, several of those kinds of entities.'' Unlike the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, the center is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. But it should be subject to it because of its quasi-governmental status, contends a medical researcher who was labeled an "abductor'' on the center's Web site in 2005, after he left the United States with his daughter. The center is "intimately entwined with agencies of the executive branch of government,'' a lawsuit says.
Allen did not directly address the issue of whether the center should be subject to Freedom of Information queries, but said the organization "receives extensive oversight from various charity regulatory bodies.''
"If the center is going to continue playing the role it does today, there's not a question in my mind that it should be subject to accountability and transparency through the FOIA process," says Berin Szoka of the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington.