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Rubenstein Donates Millions To D.C. Area For Patriotic Philanthropy


Here in Washington, D.C., a billionaire philanthropist is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on monuments, museums and historic sites. He calls this patriotic philanthropy. Mikaela Lefrak from member station WAMU tells us what he means.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: Seventy-year-old businessman David Rubenstein stands at the top of the Washington Monument. He's here to see the elevator he paid $3 million to renovate. You can hear it humming loudly. He looks out one of the observation windows and points out some of the other institutions he supports along the National Mall.

DAVID RUBENSTEIN: On this side, I'm the chairman of the Smithsonian, and then the Air and Space Museum is being redone. And then the National Archives, I've been involved in helping them with some things, so...

LEFRAK: So he's also given $9 million to the National Zoo's panda program, $10 million to the Lincoln Memorial and on and on.

RUBENSTEIN: I get a lot of pleasure out of doing these things. And if I didn't do them and I died with more money, would I be a happier person? I don't think so.

LEFRAK: Rubenstein earned his money from co-founding the global private equity company The Carlyle Group in 1987. His net worth is $3.5 billion, and he's pledged to give at least half of it away.

WILL SHAFROTH: He's in a very small group of people.

LEFRAK: National Parks (ph) Foundation head Will Shafroth says park upkeep isn't all covered by our tax dollars. The park service has a $12 billion maintenance backlog right now.

SHAFROTH: Funding the parks is sort of a team sport. Federal government's never going to do the whole thing.

LEFRAK: But while you might think Rubenstein's donations to American landmarks bring out nothing but praise, that's not exactly the case. Some argue that the government doesn't have enough money for the parks because rich people like Rubenstein take advantage of the tax code. Steve Rosenthal of the Tax Policy Center in Washington says private equity fund managers like Rubenstein argued to preserve something called the carried interest loophole, which taxes their profits at more favorable rates.

STEVE ROSENTHAL: Mr. Rubenstein was pretty aggressive over the course of his career at structuring his compensation at lower-taxed capital gains rates and even helped to defend this particular loophole and preserve it in the law.

LEFRAK: Both Democratic and Republican politicians have supported this loophole. Rubenstein bills himself as completely nonpartisan. He's a registered independent voter, and he doesn't donate a cent to political campaigns. He has relationships with every living president. Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch says he relies on Rubenstein not just for donations, but for political advice.

LONNIE BUNCH: And often when I think about political issues, I'll also raise it with David to get his guidance.

LEFRAK: Rubenstein does have some partisan ties. He worked for the Carter administration in the 1970s, and he gives to the Brookings Institution, which is seen as center-left. On the other side of the aisle, George H.W. Bush served as a Carlyle adviser, and the company made a lot of money during the Iraq War from its investments in the defense industry.

RUBENSTEIN: We're all going in the same car? OK.

LEFRAK: During a short drive to the Jefferson Memorial, he told me all about Jefferson's life story, the history of the monument's construction and quoted directly from the Declaration of Independence.

RUBENSTEIN: We hold these truths to be self-evident that...

LEFRAK: At the Jefferson, he announced a $10 million donation for upgrades to its underground museum. Then we walked up to see the statue of the third president, and Rubenstein started musing about ways to use his wealth.

RUBENSTEIN: You can be buried with it; that's not so good. Give it only to your children; that's not going to be so great for them. You can give it away while you're alive - that's probably the best thing - for a good cause, if you can find one.

LEFRAK: He's found a lot of them so far, and he's still on the hunt for more.

For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCAL NATIVES' "BLACK BALLOONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.