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Group soliciting financial help in area to fight alleged pollution by AK Steel

By Thomas Gnau

Ohio Citizen Action wants more than your assent in its work against what members say is pollution from AK Steel's Middletown Works.

It wants a contribution.

"That's been the case for the 26 years," said Rachael Belz, a salaried Cincinnati-based Ohio Citizen Action worker.

The group has had paid canvassers going door-to-door in Middletown two days a week since mid-January, Belz said.

Canvassers tell residents about what they contend is AK-produced air and water pollution. But they also try to raise the "minimums we need to maintain the organization," Belz said.

That's $140 a day per canvasser, she said.

"In order to do that kind of job, you are asking a lot of people" for contributions, Belz said.

If canvassers don't perform, "they decide to leave," she said. She called the job a "self-sustaining position."

Said Belz, "Just like anybody, if you don't do your job, you can't get paid."

She said that doesn't mean canvassers earn a commission.

On the group's Web site, Ohio Citizen Action intern Sarah Schnell wrote: "I knew that this could be a most educational, interesting and fun summer job as long as I could meet the weekly fundraising quota of $650."

Belz said that if canvassers raise more than a "minimum," there's a "possibility" they will be paid more. She declined to use the word "bonus."

"I see quotas, and I see bonuses," said Alan McCoy, AK's vice president of public affairs, pointing to the organization's Web site.

The site says full-time workers get $350 a week, "plus bonuses." A part-time worker gets $55 a day, "plus bonuses," it says.

Belz said she didn't know how much money her group has raised in Middletown. She said it raised $400,000 in 2001 in fundraising from Dayton to Northern Kentucky. Ohio Citizen Action is a 501(C)4 organization, Belz said; contributions are not tax-deductible. 501(c)(4) organizations are non-profits that can participate in politics as a secondary activity, but "must operate primarily to further (in some way) the common good and general welfare of the people of the community," according to the Internal Revenue Service Web site.

"They should be right up front about, No. 1, telling the people that they're soliciting," McCoy said.

Belz said the organization has written permission, signed by Teresa Magill, head of Middletown Police Division's records section, from city government to canvass.

City law requires solicitors to register. The law is meant to protect citizens from unscrupulous, fly-by-night operations, Police Chief Bill Becker said.

Becker said he knows of no complaints against Ohio Citizen Action.

"If there are complaints about any of their activities, then we have a point person to contact about what they're doing," he said.

Ohio Citizen Action is allowed to canvass between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. Members are expected to carry photo identification.

Canvassers encourage residents to write AK Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard M. Wardrop Jr. As of Feb. 1, Wardrop has received 7,621 letters, Belz said. McCoy said he didn't know if that figure is right.

"Let's calculate how many trees were destroyed" for those letters, McCoy said. He said it "doesn't matter how many letters they eventually pay to get sent here."

"We're in the midst of litigation on this issue," he said.

Ohio Citizen Action, which claims 100,000 members, has moved to intervene in a federal and state lawsuit against AK alleging that the steelmaker has violated environmental laws.



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