Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Obama ducks the questions - Suddenly, our open senator is acting like a dissembling pol

Obama ducks the questions - Suddenly, our open senator is acting like a dissembling pol
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
April 25, 2007

Barack Obama tells us he is the messenger of a new kind of politics.

Open. Transparent. Different.

But put the pedal to the metal and ask Illinois' junior senator new and serious questions about his radioactive, federally indicted, former friend Antoin "Tony" Rezko, and suddenly this gleaming presidential hopeful and paragon of new politics behaves just like any other dissembling, dismissive Chicago pol, ducking the discussion while pretending not to.

The story behind the story of this week's Sun-Times' reports on Rezko, the power broker slumlord, and Obama, voice for the voiceless, is revealing.

For five long weeks, Sun-Times' investigative reporter Tim Novak called, e-mailed, requested, practically pleaded with Obama's press people to provide information about the senator's relationship to Rezko when it came to the development of low-income housing in Chicago. In an abundance of fairness and an excess of solicitousness, Novak sent a list of questions.

For five weeks, no answer.

Jointly, on behalf of both the Sun-Times and NBC5 News, Novak and I sent Obama's campaign requests to interview the senator for both print and television.

Again, no answer.

Until Novak began his digging, the most we knew about the Obama/Rezko nexus was the revelation that Rezko, a major Obama donor and fund-raiser, had helped Obama enlarge the property surrounding his South Side mansion by having Mrs. Rezko simultaneously purchase an adjacent lot and then sell off a strip of that property to Obama. At the time, unless Obama never read a paper or watched the news, he couldn't help but know that Rezko was already under federal investigation. Rezko was ultimately indicted.

"It was boneheaded," the senator confessed when questions were raised. And that was that.

But Novak's reports this week raise new questions about just how much attention Obama, a self-described activist, was paying to the critical issue of affordable housing in the district he used to represent as a state senator. It again involved Rezko, his longtime patron, who had 11 failed or failing buildings in Obama's district.

Though Obama says he, himself, did a mere five hours of work, the 12-person law firm where Obama was a junior partner did significant legal work for Rezko's company which, by 2002, was being sued by the city, state and a bunch of banks for defaulting on loans and doing a downright awful job of providing decent housing. Taxpayers and lenders have lost up to $100 million while Rezko's firm made about $7 million.

There is no suggestion that Obama or his firm did anything illegal. But here's a guy who, according to a recent Tribune profile of his wife, Michelle, was so scrupulous about the details of life that he actually went with her on a job interview just to make sure her potential employer was up to snuff. Too bad he didn't give Rezko the same treatment.

Instead, Obama and his minions this week gave us the treatment for having the audacity to inquire.

More than five weeks after receiving Novak's questions, the Obama people at last sent a partial written response. It arrived exactly five hours before the Sun-Times went to press.

That's OK -- any answer is better than none. But what about that interview?

Here's a candidate who these days is on camera more than many TV anchors, whose staff is putting out press releases faster than IHOP cranks out pancakes, and yet, the senator just didn't have time, his staffers claimed, to stop and talk on Monday even though he was in Chicago giving a speech at which, conservatively, there were 30 reporters and 15 cameras.

We didn't know it then, but while Novak and I were staking out the senator's big, black SUV parked outside, he was giving a quiet private interview to the Tribune about the wrongheadedness of the Sun-Times' story.

Meanwhile, an Obama staffer, sent to watch us, nimbly Blackberried our movements to someone inside.

Suddenly, bodyguards pulled the SUV down into a parking garage, grabbed Obama, and with wheels squealing, sped out and away.

Maybe it was the image of that getaway, played on the 5 o'clock news, that finally persuaded Obama to hastily call a news conference to which Novak was not invited but managed to find out about anyway.

Obama said while the new allegations about Rezko were "deeply troubling," none of it had ever been "brought to his attention."

So why all the gymnastics to avoid the conversation?

Especially for a candidate who is "open" and "transparent" and "different"?

Being boneheaded is not a crime.

But if it was, charge Obama with a second count.


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