The Washington Post notes an odd coincidence between the University of Chicago Medical Center, where Michelle Obama worked as a vice-president until recently, and a major Barack Obama donor. The UCMC, under Michelle’s supervision, granted a $650,000 contract to a local minority contractor for upgrading the center’s intranet. In her 2006 report, Michelle listed only Blackwell Consulting in demonstrating how she had strengthened ties to the local community. Robert Blackwell, however, turns out to be something more than just a lucky local:
Two years ago, the office of Michelle Obama, the vice president for community relations at the University of Chicago Medical Center, published a glossy report detailing the improvements her office had made in the lives of local residents, in part by increasing ties to minority contractors.
Center administrators declined to disclose which businesses benefited; the report lists one — Blackwell Consulting Services.
In 2005, the center expanded its bidding process and invited African American businessman Robert Blackwell Sr. to join a competition to upgrade the center’s intranet, the in-house equivalent of a Web site. His company, Blackwell Consulting, won contracts totaling nearly $650,000.
Blackwell and his family, records show, have been longtime donors to the political campaigns of Michelle Obama’s husband, Barack. Robert Blackwell Jr., a former partner in the firm, is a major fundraiser for Barack Obama. At various times, Blackwell Sr. says, his and his son’s businesses each have retained Barack Obama as an attorney.
Blackwell not only is a major fundraiser for Obama, but employed him as an attorney — while getting public funds through UCMC from Michelle Obama. Does this sound like a conflict of interest? For one thing, did Blackwell’s payments to Obama for legal services result from any actual work, or was this a method of getting cash to the Obamas while avoiding campaign-finance regulations?
Michelle’s contract award raises even more questions. Did she give the contract to Blackwell as a payoff for his efforts to raise money for her husband? Even more to the point, did the contract give Blackwell money to put back into Obama’s campaign coffers? UCMC is a public entity, run from public funds [see Update 1]. The appearance here is that the Obamas had a way to channel taxpayer funds to a major contributor and then back to themselves, both personally and politically.
That also puts a new light on Barack Obama’s earmarks for UCMC. In 2005, he almost tripled the pork to the medical center to over $310,000; in 2006, he more than tripled it again to $1 million for the construction of a new pavillion for the hospital. How much of that ended up with Blackwell, or with other “local contractors” who either employed Obama as an attorney or contributed to his campaigns?
Chicagoans may slough this off as normal politics. It looks pretty slimy from everywhere else.
Update: Should be University of Chicago Medical Center, not UICMC. I’ve made the corrections above. I’m also told that the University of Chicago Medical Center is a private institution which receives both private and public funds.
Update II: I thought Blackwell sounded familiar. The LA Times did an extensive story on Blackwell in April, and he’s no stranger to the Obamas. Not only did Barack Obama get paid a lot of money from Blackwell, he helped Blackwell get other government grants as well:
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, including U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, offered support for the event. But Obama was the only one who provided a letter that became part of the initial application for state funds, state records show. 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.”
Initially, the idea of table tennis receiving funds from a state tourism program — designed to encourage overnight visits to Illinois — was met with skepticism by one Republican state official. But the funding was granted at the $20,000 level that first year, grew to $200,000 in 2003 and totaled $100,000 in 2004.
What kind of attendance did a third of a million dollars get Chicago for its table-tennis tournament? Between 3,000 and 6,000 attendees in that period. Illinois spent hundreds per ticket sold to get butts in the seats.
In 2000, Obama said in his book The Audacity of Hope, he entered a “dry period” when his law practice had declined from his political pursuits. Starting in 2001, that changed — when Blackwell hired him:
Obama’s tax returns show that he made no money from his law practice in 2000, the year of his unsuccessful run for a congressional seat. But that changed in 2001, when Obama reported $98,158 income for providing legal services. Of that, $80,000 was from Blackwell’s company.
In 2002, the state senator reported $34,491 from legal services and speeches. Of that, $32,000 came from the EKI legal assignment, which ended in April 2002 by mutual agreement, as Obama ceased the practice of law and looked ahead to the possibility of running for the U.S. Senate. .
EKI claimed that Obama spent long hours perusing contracts and advising them on “compliance and human resources” issues. Did they get $112,000 worth of advice in 16 months?