United Way's Troubles

RECESSION-WEARY Americans have had ample reason in recent months to criticize the inflated salaries and lavish benefits of corporate executives. But even in nonrecessionary times, it would be hard to justify the extravagances of William Aramony, who has just stepped down as president of United Way, the nation's largest charity network. His $463,000 salary, trips on the Concorde, chauffeured cars, and a Florida apartment are levels of compensation hardly befitting the leader of a nonprofit organization de voted to helping those in need.

By all accounts, Mr. Aramony has worked tirelessly for United Way during his 22-year tenure. But unfortunately the comfort of too many perks risks distracting any leader's original sense of purpose.

The United Way revelations come on the heels of two other cases involving questionable uses of public funds. In New York City, Laura Blackburne, the chairwoman of the Housing Authority, stepped down last month in the wake of public criticism over her spending habits, which included $33,000 to redecorate her office and $1,522 to charter a helicopter from New York City to a conference in Atlantic City.

And in Washington, D.C., Amtrak's nine-member board of directors has come under fire for taking a weeklong tour of trains in five European countries last September. The trip cost $62,000. A spokesman defended the tour, saying, "This was not recreation." But union members, some of whom have not had a raise for five years, lambasted it as a "taxpayer-paid vacation."

Nobody is asking for hair shirts all around. Rank will always have its privileges. But at a time when the distance between the rich and the poor is perceived to be widening, a little restraint at the top of the heap seems not only appropriate but required. The let-them-eat-cake style of Marie Antoinette plays almost as badly in the 1990s as it did 200 years ago.

The task before the United Way will be to reestablish sound business principles and restore confidence in the integrity of charities. As the president of a United Way chapter in Nevada puts it, "If you don't have the public trust, you don't have anything." That's a message all institutions should heed.

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