Obama mu­seum earmarks draw fire

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JIM MCELHATTON

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Barack Obama tried to di­rect more than $3 mil­lion in tax­payer funds to a Chicago mu­seum whose chair­man is one of the Illi­nois se­na­tor’s largest cam­paign fundrais­ers.

Mr. Obama has twice since fis­cal 2006 sought to have tax­pay­ers foot the bill for a new the­ater pro­jec­tor and other equip­ment at the Adler Plan­e­tar­ium on the Lake Michi­gan water­front. Nei­ther of the re­quests, which to­taled $3.3 mil­lion, was ap­proved by Congress, the mu­seum said.

The plan­e­tar­ium’s chair­man, then and still, is Frank Clark, chief ex­ec­u­tive of ComEd, a unit of Chicago-based Ex­elon En­ergy. He has pledged to raise more than $200,000 for Mr. Obama’s run for the White House.

More­over, the Adler Plan­e­tar­ium is rep­re­sented by the lob­by­ing firm Na­tional Group LLP, co-founded by William Ol­daker, who helped launch Sen. Joseph R. Bi­den Jr.’s po­lit­i­cal action com­mit­tee in 2005. Mr. Ol­daker, a part­ner with the Delaware Demo­crat’s son in an­other Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing and law firm, is no longer in­volved with Mr. Bi­den’s PAC, Unite Our States.

Obama cam­paign aides said the re­quests for the Adler were among sev­eral worth­while projects sup­ported over the years by the se­na­tor on be­half of uni­ver­si­ties, hos­pi­tals and other non­profit in­sti­tu­tions in his home state.

“Se­na­tor Obama is firmly com­mit­ted to en­hanc­ing our na­tion´s sci­ence ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram­ming, and he joined a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion of Illi­nois mem­bers of Congress, in­clud­ing Se­na­tor [Richard J.] Durbin and Con­gress­men [Mark Steven] Kirk, [Jesse L.] Jack­son Jr., [Danny K.] Davis, and [Rahm] Emanuel in re­quest­ing fund­ing to en­hance and re­store the plan­e­tar­ium,” Obama cam­paign spokesman Ben LaBolt said.

Mr. Obama’s Se­nate of­fice last year dis­closed his fis­cal 2008 ear­mark re­quests.

Ear­mark­ing is be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly big is­sue in the pres­i­den­tial race.

Democrats have sought to paint Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. John McCain’s run­ning mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as flip-flop­ping on her po­si­tion on the in­fa­mous “bridge to nowhere” ear­mark. They said she sup­ported it be­fore she op­posed it.

They also said she has sought tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in earmarks as gov­er­nor and mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

Mr. Obama’s of­fice said at the time that the $3 mil­lion re­quest for the Adler was made be­cause its pro­jec­tor was fail­ing, “leav­ing the the­ater dark and groups of school stu­dents and other in­ter­ested mu­seum-go­ers without this very valu­able and ex­cit­ing learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Two years ear­lier, Mr. Obama sought $300,000 for the Adler in an­other un­suc­cess­ful ear­mark re­quest.

But with Mr. Clark also serv­ing as a big Obama fundraiser, the Adler re­quest also is the sort spending pro­posal that in­vites scru­tiny from Repub­li­cans scour­ing Mr. Obama’s earmarks for po­lit­i­cal fod­der in the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

“His ear­mark re­quests ben­e­fit­ing projects tied to friends and con­trib­u­tors is fur­ther proof that Obama’s ‘change’ slo­gan is just words and noth­ing more,” Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee spokesman Danny Diaz said of the Adler re­quest.

Of­fi­cials for the Obama cam­paign and the Adler scoffed at the sug­ges­tion of po­lit­i­cal fa­voritism.

“The non­profit Adler Plan­e­tar­ium is one of the lead­ing astro­nom­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions in the Mid­west, of­fer­ing pro­grams for stu­dents, sci­en­tists and the pub­lic,” Mr. LaBolt said.

Adler spokes­woman Molly O’Con­nell said the plan­e­tar­ium had made re­quests to Mr. Durbin and Mr. Obama and six area congress- men from both po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

“We are grate­ful that all of the mem­bers we have ap­proached, in­clud­ing Se­na­tor Obama, have deemed our ac­tiv­i­ties wor­thy of their sup­port, and have made ap­pro­pri­a­tions re­quests on our be­half as they have for many wor­thy Illi­nois non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions,” she said. “Al­though Se­na­tor Obama has sub­mit­ted re­quests on the mu­seum’s be­half, none of them have been funded.”

Though nei­ther of Mr. Obama’s spending re­quests won ap­proval in Congress, the Adler still has man­aged to se­cure more than $1.2 mil­lion in other earmarks in re­cent years.

Since 2005, the mu­seum has paid more than a quar­ter-mil­lion dol­lars to Na­tional Group to lobby Con- gress.

Obama cam­paign of­fi­cials said Mr. Bi­den’s son, Hunter, never lob­bied Mr. Obama.

“Hunter Bi­den and Bill Ol­daker were not in­volved in the Adler ac­count, nor did they re­ceive any funds that the firm earned on the ac­count,” Mr. LaBolt said.

Hunter Bi­den left the Na­tional Group in 2006. Tele­phone calls to Mr. Bi­den and Mr. Ol­daker at their law firm were not re­turned Sept. 10, nor was a phone mes­sage left at the Na­tional Group, which shares the same of­fice as Ol­daker, Bi­den and Be­lair. A mes­sage left for Mr. Clark last week through Ex­elon also was not re­turned.

Ms. O’Con­nell said the Na­tional Group was hired in con­sul­ta­tion with Mr. Clark and other mem­bers of the mu­seum’s board of trustees. In ad­di­tion, she said, mu­seum trustees serve without com­pen­sa­tion and rep­re­sent “the en­tire po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.”

She also said trustees have con­trib­uted or raised money for both Repub­li­cans and Democrats.

As scru­tiny on Mrs. Palin in­ten­si­fies, Repub­li­cans are re­vis­it­ing the is­sue of Mr. Obama’s earmarks. Even be­fore Mrs. Palin was named as Mr. McCain’s run­ning mate, the con­ser­va­tive blog Next Right had be­gun rais­ing ques­tions about the Adler ear­mark. And last week, the RNC be­gan send­ing re­porters “Daily Obama Ear­mark Up­date” email mes­sages.

“One way to avoid th­ese kinds of ques­tions be­ing asked is sim­ply not to re­quest earmarks,” said Tom Schatz, pres­i­dent of the non­profit Cit­i­zens Against Gov­ern­ment Waste.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Barack Obama meets with for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in New York on Sept. 11.

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