Monday, September 22, 2008

Ten reasons Barack Obama is no reformer

We in Illinois know Barack Obama is a faux reformer. He has never bucked his own party in a meaningful way. He has thrived during the most corrupt period in Illinois history and instead of standing up to it, he essentially went with the dirty flow, as this excellent book points out. In no particular order, here are 10 examples.

1. Governor Rod Blagojevich. At 13 percent approval he is the most unpopular governor in the country. For good reason—he's probably the most corrupt. Since he took office in 2003 proclaiming he'd reform Illinois government, his administration has been an ethical and operational disaster. He's facing a huge federal investigation into his cronyism and hiring practices. His number one and two outside advisors/fundraisers have been indicted and in Tony Rezko's case, convicted. Obama has many many common advisors, supporters and donors with Blagojevich, including Rezko. Obama chaired a state senate committee that approved a health board consolidation that was crucial in allowing Rezko and pals to plunder state government. Never once during five years of this mushrooming corruption scandal has Obama criticized the governor. Contrast this with Obama's predecessor, U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald, who sharply and publicly disagreed and moved to stop corruption under a governor of his own party under federal investigation during his tenure. That governor, George Ryan, has since gone to federal prison. Obama not only has refused to criticize Blagojevich, he has given him campaign assignments.

2. Tony Rezko-aided house deal. The news media has given Obama's mansion deal spasmodic attention. Several burning questions remain about the June 2005 purchase of his Chicago south side mansion on the same day his influence peddler pal purchased the adjacent lot. After months of stonewalling, Obama has answered some questions about the sale, but has glaringly obscured the crux of the question—did he receive financial benefit from Rezko's participation. He has released dozens of pages of documents related to the sale but not the most important one that lists all the money changing hands. We also haven't heard from the sellers of the properties and the agents/brokers involved. There is strong circumstantial evidence that the Obamas received a financial benefit of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars from Rezko's same day participation, which would be a blatant violation of Senate ethics rules, among other standards. Despite this, the media seems to have dropped its interest for some reason.

3. Mayor Richard Daley. Although much more popular than Governor Blagojevich, Daley's administration also has had its share of corruption problems. A federal investigation into hiring practices has produced high profile indictments and is still underway. The heat produced by the probes even caused the media in Chicago to ask Obama about it and he offered mild concern, a micro-rebuke he withdrew within hours. Perhaps his main advisor, David Axelrod, who also advises Daley, straightened him out. Months earlier, Axelrod had written an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune defending Daley's political patronage. Since then, Obama has been mum about Chicago corruption.

4. Anti-reform endorsement decisions. When Obama has been asked to make an endorsement that matters, he sides with self-interest over reform. Obama supporter Eric Zorn noted with disgust that Obama refused to side with reform in sitting out the 2006 Cook County Board President primary, effectively handing re-election to machine hack John Stroger over the reform-minded Forrest Claypool. Obama endorsed donor/banker Alexi Giannoulias over a downstate law enforcement official in the 2006 primary for state treasurer. Giannoulias' family bank was accused of giving loans to mob figures and other unseemly practices. Obama's high-profile TV ads for Alexi proved decisive in the race. Giannoulias has since become a presidential campaign bundler. Obama also made an unusual mayoral endorsement for suburban Aurora mayor Tom Weisner in 2005. Aurora's lobbyist: Obama's first political advisor, Dan Shomon.

5. Emil Jones. The longtime Illinois Senate president and Obama's political godfather is by even the most generous characterization, an opponent of reform. Over the years, Jones has dished out the pork, hired his relatives, enjoyed the perks of government and frequently had his integrity questioned. In other words, another Chicago machine hack. Again, Obama has never stood up or spoke out about any of Jones escapades.

6. The Robert Blackwell Jr. caper. One of the most under mentioned items on Obama's resume is the fishy legal contract he received from major donor Robert Blackwell Jr. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the contract gave Obama an $8,000-a-month contract for legal work that he refuses to detail. After the contract, Obama helped Blackwell receive state and federal grants for dubious projects and his wife was a key player in a minority contracting program at her hospital that netted Blackwell's father a massive contract.

7. Slumlord/donors over constituents. The Chicago Sun-Times and Boston Globe have chronicled how Obama's legislative actions as state senator directly helped his donor friends obtain government low-income housing assistance in his district and elsewhere. Subsequently, those donors, most prominently Rezko, skimmed profits and left Obama's constituents without heat and other essentials. Obama was indifferent to it all—the complaints from residents, the failure by tenants, Rezko's growing financial problems. Obama was plenty attentive, though, to the checks from Rezko that fueled his political campaigns.

8. The Iraq mysteries. Serious questions remain about the ties between Obama and Rezko associatiates Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi-born billionaire and Aiham Alsammarae, the former Iraqi power czar, both of whom have had serious problems with the law. Obama attended a dinner in Auchi's honor at Rezko's home in 2004. Three weeks before the Rezko-Obama house deal was finalized in June 2005, Auchi lent Rezko $3.5 million. At one point, Auchi enlisted Rezko to get his travel visa to the United States restored and the Rezko investigation he reached out to two Illinois officials. Obama has given vague denials it was him or his office. Alsammarae gave a Rezko-connected firm a $50 million contract for power plant security that Obama's U.S. Senate office may have tried to revive after it was killed. He also posted part of Rezko's bond. Obama has only barely trickled answers out on these matters and the mainstream press has given this explosive arena very little attention.

9. Secrecy and harassment. Obama has created the illusion of transparency through support of some no-brainer measures and then locked the door on many of his own documents. He won't turn over his Illinois state senate records, the main document related to his house purchase with Rezko, his complete medical records, his college transcripts, his law license application, the client list of his main advisor, his U.S. Senate email records and so on. He also harasses critics, telling his supporters to smear legitimate authors and researchers who dare level any information that differs from his self-created narrative.

10. A 1998 state ethics bill canard. Obama's supporters continually point to Obama's sponsorship of a 1998 ethics law in Illinois as proof of his concern for reform. The reality is the bill passed 52-4 and was tepid, inching Illinois regulations a bit closer to the rest of states but leaving it far behind most. Regardless, the larger point is this: The law had virtually no effect on preventing corruption in Illinois. To the contrary, the law went into effect at the onset of perhaps the most corrupt period in Illinois history, an era that saw the indictment and conviction of a governor, the likely indictment of his successor, and plentiful indictments and convictions in city and state offices. Far more important than a milquetoast law, Illinois needed politicians to courageously speak out against the corruption bubbling around them.

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