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