McMahon stepped up philanthropy between campaigns

The 10-month interlude between the end of Linda McMahon’s first U.S. Senate campaign and start of her second turns out to have been the busiest period by far in the six-year existence of the Vince and Linda McMahon Family Foundation.

After an average of five grants a year for five years, the foundation this year has awarded 23 as of Oct. 7, including $75,000 to help underwrite a public affairs special on Connecticut Public Television.

“The past year since the last campaign, I’ve been doing a lot of the philanthropic work for the foundation,” said McMahon, who had been chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment before her first run.

The grant to Connecticut Public Television helped produce “Education vs. Incarceration,” an educational special that aired in May and a follow-up town meeting broadcast live a week ago.

In both broadcasts and in promotional spots, CPTV and its radio affiliate, WNPR, noted the program “was made possible…by the Vince and Linda McMahon Family Foundation,” among other supporters.

McMahon has talked about her philanthropy as part of the campaign, especially her interest in education, but she said she has been sensitive about not overtly using the foundation to promote her political ambitions.

“One of the things that I’ve been very particular about is contributions made during a campaign phase,” McMahon said. Action on at least two grants sought during the 2010 was deferred until after the election, she said.

McMahon said the foundation was solicited by CPTV between the two campaigns.

“We saw the drafts of it, and I really liked the concept,” McMahon said.

Dean Orton, a senior vice president at Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, the corporate parent of CPTV and WNPR, said the network had no concerns about taking money from McMahon’s foundation, even though there was little question she intended to run for Senate again.

“We are required by the FCC to disclose sponsors of our programs of which the foundation is one,” Orton said by email. “Further the disclosure as presented does not reference Ms. McMahon as an individual much less as a potential political candidate.”

As the co-founders of WWE, now a publicly traded company based in Stamford, Vince and Linda McMahon have progressed from a bankruptcy in 1976 to a home in Greenwich and a net worth once estimated by Forbes at $1.1 billion.

In her first run for U.S. Senate, McMahon spent $50 million of her personal fortune to win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, only to lose the general election to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

Their foundation has given away more than $10 million since its formation in 2006, starting with $2.5 million to build an indoor-outdoor tennis center in Ebensburg, Pa., the home of Vince McMahon’s tennis-playing mother, Vicki Askew.

A year later, the foundation gave away $1.5 million, with $1 million going to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, where Linda McMahon is a trustee. The Sacred Heart gift was the first of four annual $1 million donations to the school from 2007 to 2010.

“Our foundation primarily works with kids at risk and education,” McMahon said. “So, as I’ve traveled around and met a lot of the people, I’ve been very touched by the things they are trying to do, so many good people trying to do good things to educate and rescue our kids.”

Some of those good things involved people associated with her campaigns.

Starting in 2009, the foundation gave the first of three $100,000 grants to the Connecticut Basketball Club, an AAU club whose directors include Patrick Sullivan, a former lobbyist for WWE and a political adviser to McMahon. The club provides educational support, along with basketball.

The biggest grant awarded this year was $150,000 to Roses for Autism, an employment and educational program based at a rose farm in Guilford. McMahon said it is associated with Ability Beyond Disability, whose senior vice president for development is her first campaign manager, David Cappiello.

The foundation in 2008 gave $100,000 to Generation Rescue, another autism group in which the actress, Jenny McCarthy, has been a leader, repeating widely-discredited claims about a connection between childhood vaccines and autism.

McMahon said the donation came about because of McCarthy is an acquaintance made through WWE, not because the McMahons agree with her concerns about vaccines. McCarthy’s son has autism.

“I’ve never really done much of the research on that,” McMahon said. “I know that my daughter and I have had conversations about it, and she certainly has not failed to make sure her children were vaccinated.”

Other major beneficiaries of the McMahons’ foundation include East Carolina University, which both McMahons attended, and the Fishburne Military School attended by her husband. They gave $1 million to Fishburne in 2008, while East Carolina has been given a series of three $333,000 gifts.

This year was a departure in the foundation’s giving, with a wide range of smaller donations spread across the state, including $68,335 for Catholic Charities in Hartford, $100,000 for the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford, and $20,000 for Academy of the Holy Family, a Catholic girls boarding school in Sprague.

In hometown Greenwhich, the foundation gave $25,000 towards the construction of a new auditorium at Greenwich High School and $15,000 for the Family Centers Young Parents Program. It also wrote smaller checks for the Channel 3 Kids Camp, Waterbury Youth Service System and the Connecticut Science Center.

According to documents provided by the foundation, its 23 grants this year totaled nearly $800,000, with another $1.3 million to be given by the end of the year to Sacred Heart and East Carolina.