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Coin deal diverts $1 million from tuition aid to garden

July 16, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Classical music plays softly at the conservatory of the U.S. Botanic Garden, at the foot of Capitol Hill. Tourists stroll sun-dappled aisles. Flowers lightly scent the air.

It’s a scene about as foreign as can be from the rollicking stands of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where Jackie Robinson ran and batted and caught his way into history.

It’s far removed, too, from the inner-city homes of poor kids, who were awarded college scholarships by a foundation named after the man who broke baseball’s color barrier half a century ago.

But the foundation and the garden have one thing in common. Both are beneficiaries of a Jackie Robinson commemorative silver dollar produced by the U.S. Mint.

An unprecedented arrangement, diverting $1 million from the foundation to the garden, illustrates the little-known but fierce politics surrounding the selection of subjects for the nation’s commemorative coins, pitting worthy cause against worthy cause.

Last October, Congress authorized 100,000 $5 Jackie Robinson gold pieces, with a $35 surcharge on each. A sellout would raise $3.5 million for the Robinson foundation, which supported 142 students at 62 schools during the past year.

Congress also authorized 200,000 silver dollars, with a $10 surcharge, raising $2 million.

Then-Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., whose wife, Mary, is a vice chairwoman of The National Fund for the U.S. Botanic Garden, at first sought to block the Robinson coins. He worried the Robinson dollar would hurt sales of a separate, already-authorized silver dollar commemorating the establishment of the garden in 1820.

``There are only so many coins in a certain year they can sell,″ he said.

Earlier, Botanic Garden supporters had deferred to Olympic coins, missing the garden’s 175th anniversary by two years. This time Johnston offered a compromise: split the proceeds of the Robinson silver dollar. So, the first $1 million _ enough for 50 four-year scholarships _ is going to the garden.

But few if any coin and sports memorabilia collectors know that. The arrangement wasn’t mentioned in the brief debate when the House and Senate authorized the coins during their rush to adjournment.

Nor did it come up during the June 26 ceremony on the steps of the Treasury when Secretary Robert Rubin presented the coins to Rachel Robinson, the ballplayer’s widow.

And only the Robinson foundation, not the garden, is cited in the glossy promotional literature produced by the mint.

U.S. Mint Director Philip Diehl said mentioning both beneficiaries could have highlighted the surcharges _ a sore point with many collectors.

``They view them as taxes Congress imposes on their hobby,″ he said. ``We tend to downplay the surcharges. It’s not a marketing plus and it could be a minus.″

Diehl said the agreement between Botanic Garden and Robinson foundation officials protected both programs and will allow the mint to maximize its sales.

``It was win, win, win all the way around,″ he said.

Backers of the Robinson foundation disgree.

``We felt the overwhelmingly greater priority was educating young men and women who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college,″ said Leonard Coleman, National League president and Robinson foundation chairman.

Bob Hansen, executive director of the Botanic Garden fund, said the garden also is educational.

Money raised from the garden’s coin, as well as $1 million from the Robinson dollar, will help pay for a 3.3-acre outdoor garden to the west of the glassed-in conservatory, which attracts 600,000 visitors a year.

``We’ve dubbed it nature’s school yard,″ he said. ``There will be an environmental learning center ... a rose garden, a first lady’s water garden ... and a lawn terrace for tented receptions and daily use by the public.″

To Johnston, the financing arrangement was more than fair. His wife had worked on raising funds for the garden for years with B.A. Bentsen, wife of Lloyd Bentsen, the former senator and Treasury secretary, and Teresa Heinz, wife of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. The Robinson foundation proposed its coin at the eleventh hour, he said.

``To say we somehow took advantage of them is just wrong. ... We thought up a creative way to help them and they were pleased as punch,″ he said. ``They said `thank you’ at the time and I hope they’re still grateful.″

Mrs. Robinson said she was shocked by Johnston’s demand but felt she had no choice but to agree or see the legislation killed during the end-of-session crush.

``He was literally taking funds away from us but I felt we had no recourse,″ she said. ``The million dollars we lost represents 50 endowed scholarships.″

As it turned out, the Botanic Garden coin sold strongly this spring, despite the pending July 3 release of the Robinson coins. Through July 10, the mint sold 234,898 _ 15 percent more than it projected, raising nearly $2.35 million for the garden.

The sponsors of the Robinson coin bill _ Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, and Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y. _ said they were unhappy about the $1 million diversion but had no choice. Any one senator has extraordinary power to block legislation, especially just before adjournment.

``Given the nature of politics, it would appear this was the only way,″ Flake said.

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