The National Association to PROTECT Children, which describes itself as “a national pro-child, anti-crime membership association. . . . committed to building a powerful, nonpartisan force for the protection of children from abuse, exploitation and neglect,” recently issued this rare rebuke of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) paid its CEO over $1.3 million in salary and compensation in 2008, the St. Petersburg Times reported last week, in an article now drawing fire from the group.
“In 2008, the latest year for which records are available, [Ernie] 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,” reports Susan Taylor Martin, a veteran investigative reporter.
NCMEC claims that the additional $787,126 it paid Allen in 2008 was for “retirement benefits that have accumulated for more than 20 years.” Martin also reports that “the center’s 350 employees include 11 who are paid more than $125,000.”
Martin asked Sandra Mioniutti of Charity Navigator, which calls itself, “the nation’s largest and most-utilized evaluator of charities,” about NCMEC’s practices. “I think it doesn’t pass the smell test with donors… said Mioniutti. “It’s very hard for people to wrap their arms around huge salaries, especially right now when we’re in a recession.”
The article provoked a rare official response on the issue from the National Center.
“Mr. Allen’s involvement with NCMEC goes beyond the traditional CEO. He was one of the co-founders of both NCMEC and ICMEC. Mr. Allen serves as the full-time chief executive and manages two nonprofit organizations with separate boards of directors, one domestic and one global, and he played a significant role in building both organizations,” NCMEC says in the statement on its website. (For a list of the NCMEC Board of Directors, click here.)
“Key facts and information that were provided to Ms. Martin were omitted and the resulting story contained inaccurate and misleading information,” claims NCMEC.
A second issue raised by the St. Petersburg Times is also provoking a defensive response from the Center. The paper’s story runs under the headline, “Quasi-governmental missing kids center enjoys key exemptions from federal rules,” raising questions about NCMEC’s legal status and salaries that dwarf normal government pay scales. Allen’s base salary of $511,069 is greater than President Obama’s, and nearly three times the salary for a U.S. Senator (source).
“The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) is not a government agency…” responds the group. “NCMEC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It is an information clearinghouse. It assists law enforcement, but does not engage in law enforcement action itself.” At NCMEC’s 20th anniversary “Tribute to President Ronald Reagan” in 2004, the agency described itself as “a public-private partnership, taking the best of both worlds to better protect America’s children.”
But NCMEC’s legal status is not that simple.
Often referred to as “Congress’ Nonprofit,” NCMEC operates in a gray area between government and the private sector. Attorney and author Andrew Vachss (a PROTECT National Advisory Board member) calls the agency “the Blackwater of Child Protection.”
“Why should we be outsourcing what the government’s supposed to do in child protection?” asks Vachss. “Why should this be in private hands?”
By special statutory authority, the ostensibly private Center has access to secure law enforcement databases, warehouses illegal child pornography images and even has federal agents working under its roof. Federal law also gives NCMEC the power to compel private industry to deliver evidence of suspected online crimes, which is then forwarded to law enforcement, effectively making the Center an operational middle man in thousands of criminal investigations.
NCMEC’s power and funding have often come at the expense of law enforcement, as Congress starves law enforcement agencies while funding the Center lavishly. When NCMEC took over a critical child pornography database for identifying victims from the FBI, Bureau officials explained sheepishly that “they had the people and we didn’t.” However, NCMEC says in its official statement that it “is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),” making it impossible for citizens to determine how effectively or quickly thousands of child victims are now being searched for, identified and located.
Many in the law enforcement world resent the power and funding Congress has given to NCMEC and fear its political influence. “I’d rather piss on a Mafia boss’ shoes than piss off NCMEC,” one former child pornography investigator told PROTECT. That sentiment is whispered among law enforcement nationwide.
It’s unlikely, however, that revelations of NCMEC salaries will trigger official action against a massive agency that one top Justice Department official recently called politically “wired.”
“It’s widely understood on Capitol Hill that openly criticizing or challenging NCMEC is off-limits,” says PROTECT executive director Grier Weeks. “Their untouchable status weakened a little after the Foley scandal [Rep. Mark Foley headed NCMEC’s Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus], but criticism is still spoken in code and prefaced with effusive disclaimers.
“As far as expecting low- or mid-level bureaucrats at Justice to challenge the Center on issues like million-dollar salaries, forget about it.”
NCMEC operates under a $30 million annual “cooperative agreement” with the U.S. Department of Justice. It raises approximately $10 million more a year from private entities, including companies that it has quasi-regulatory power over (see Microsoft settlement, Cuomo prosecution threat).
“The question raised by the St. Petersburg Times is not so much about NCMEC’s accountability,” says Weeks. “That is what it is. This is about the federal government’s accountability. It would be hard to argue at this point that NCMEC is not a re-branded government agency operating outside the bounds of normal government accountability–one free to aggressively influence the political, legislative and budgetary process.”