[Updated 4x at end]
Barack Obama, as it turns out, is just another old-school politician in the finest quid-pro-quo Chicago tradition.
Although Obama has worked tirelessly to promote the image of himself as a 21st Century leader "dedicated to transparency and sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest," writes the L.A. Times, he traded favors with Chicago entrepreneur Robert Blackwell Jr. during a time when Obama was struggling financially. According to the Times:
After an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama faced serious financial pressure: numerous debts, limited cash and a law practice he had neglected for a year. Help arrived in early 2001 from a significant new legal client -- a longtime political supporter.
Chicago entrepreneur Robert Blackwell Jr. paid Obama an $8,000-a-month retainer to give legal advice to his growing technology firm, Electronic Knowledge Interchange. It allowed Obama to supplement his $58,000 part-time state Senate salary for over a year with regular payments from Blackwell's firm that eventually totaled $112,000.
A few months after receiving his final payment from EKI, Obama sent a request on state Senate letterhead urging Illinois officials to provide a $50,000 tourism promotion grant to another Blackwell company, Killerspin.
Obama's campaign, of course, vigorously denies even the appearance of impropriety:
"Any implication that Sen. Obama would risk an ethical breach in order to secure a small grant for a pingpong tournament is nuts," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief political advisor..
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs...said Obama did nothing wrong acting on behalf of Killerspin. He said the state senator simply wrote a letter backing a worthy project developed by a constituent.
But the day after Obama wrote his letter soliciting state funds for Blackwell's company, Obama's U.S. Senate campaign received a $1,000 donation from Blackwell.
Maybe he didn't "do anything wrong"(but see update) yet isn't this the sort of backroom wheeling-dealing Obama decries? It seems especially hypocritical in light of his heightened attacks against Hillary Clinton as a "compromised Washington insider." It seems that Clinton was onto something when she replied that "Mr. Obama's message of hope had given way to old-style politics and asked Democrats to take a harder look at him." Source.
While acknowledging that there were likely no technical violations in the tit-for-tat arrangement with Blackwell, the Times strongly implies that Obama does not, in fact, live up to the image he promotes...
Business relationships between lawmakers and people with government interests are not illegal or uncommon in Illinois or other states with a part-time Legislature, where lawmakers supplement their state salaries with income from the private sector.
But Obama portrays himself as a lawmaker dedicated to transparency and sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Recently, Obama expressed regret over a property deal with Illinois power broker Tony Rezko after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. In an interview this spring with the Chicago Sun-Times, Obama said his regret was not just because the real estate and restaurant entrepreneur was under criminal scrutiny, but because he was "a contributor and someone doing business before the state."
Killerspin's owner, Blackwell, was a political supporter and friend as well. Both men lived on Chicago's South Side. Blackwell, a savvy and successful entrepreneur, was one of the first donors to Obama's early campaigns, including the state senator's failed bid for a congressional seat in 2000. In the presidential race he is credited on Obama's website with committing to raise $100,000 to $200,000 for Obama's campaign.
When Blackwell sought backing for his table tennis tournament in 2002, other politicians...offered support...But Obama was the only one who provided a letter that became part of the initial application for state funds...In addition, he wrote a state Senate proclamation heralding the first tournament and an official letter that welcomed "table tennis friends" to the 2004 contest and thanked spectators for helping to "make Chicago the table tennis capital of this nation." (emphasis added)
Keep in mind, this is the politician whose campaign had the audacity to say:
"Sen. Clinton is the most secretive politician in America today. This has been a pattern throughout her career of the lack of disclosure." Source.
There is nothing "new" about Barack Obama. He may be younger than his peers, but Obama has been an obedient student of traditional Chicago politics, and he learned early on how to keep his bread buttered. Now American voters don't necessarily have a problem with conventional politicians. But I'm pretty sure that people dislike hypocritical ones.
UPDATED 4/27/08 5:55 PM PST: This update, originally posted at 1:45 PM PST, included a citation to Andy Martin. Due to objections in the comment threads of this post, I have deleted that reference. The question, however, is valid, which is what legal services Obama provided to earn $112,000 from Blackwell's company. Is there a record? Note: I am currently researching this question and will update accordingly.
UPDATED 4/27/08 3:30 PM PST: According to The Huffington Post, Blackwell contributed $9,600 to Barack Obama as of Feb. 2007.
UPDATED 4/27/08 4:00 PM PST: Over at Talk Left, I came across this comment today in response to the LA Times story:
Being a lawyer myself (5.00 / 3) (#23)
by angie on Sun Apr 27, 2008 at 02:36:49 PM EST:
I would like to see Obama's time sheets for the work he did for EIK. The simple fact is that what most people call a retainer today is really an advance -- the money you get from the client goes into a trust account and as you actually do the work then that money can be moved from the trust account to your general account -- only at that point (after the work is actually done and billed) is the money the attorney's. A true retainer is a set amount of money given to an attorney to ensure that the attorney is available for whatever work you may have for him. The difference is that a true retainer is the attorney's money from the moment he gets it, and without any work being done. This true retainer arrangement simply doesn't happen any more, and in the rare case that it does, the attorney would have to be on par with Clarence Darrow. I cannot believe that Obama is/was such an attorney -- not so new out of law school as the timing of this story. So, while I can't say it is money laundering based on what I'm reading here, it does not pass the smell test for me and should raise some serious questions with the IL bar.
Cross posted at texasdarlin.wordpress.com