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Obama and the Woods Fund

As a board member, Obama helped scratch a lot of backs with grants to politically connected groups.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

September 13, 2008 - 12:05 am

The mainstream media is not much interested in probing Barack Obama’s record before he arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2004. For example, they have studiously ignored the eminently well-researched book by David Freddoso, The Case Against Barack Obama. There is no shortage of material or information which might be relevant to voters. One aspect of Obama’s past in particular provides insight into Obama’s modus operandi in the world of Chicago politics: his service on the board of the Woods Fund.

The Woods Fund is a non-profit foundation which declares its goal to “increase opportunities for less advantaged people and communities by giving money primarily to not-for-profit groups involved in housing, the arts and other areas.” Obama joined the board of the Woods Fund in 1993 and remained until 2002. But Obama didn’t merely use the Woods Fund to help his fellow man — he used it to further his career.

According to a November 29, 2007 report from the Chicago Sun-Times, “Sen. Barack Obama was on the board of a Chicago charity when his former boss, Allison S. Davis, came looking for money. At the time, Davis was a developer represented by the law firm where Obama worked, as well as a small contributor to Obama’s political campaign funds. He wanted the charity to help fund his plans to build housing for low-income Chicagoans.”

When Davis approached the Woods Fund, he was building another apartment building with now convicted felon and Obama friend/fundraiser Tony Rezko. The Chicago Sun-Times recounts: “Obama agreed. He voted with other directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago to invest $1 million with Neighborhood Rejuvenation Partners L.P., a $17-million partnership that Davis still operates.” To date the Obama campaign has refused to comment on whether Obama disclosed his ties to Davis when he voted on the project. Another Woods Board Fund member with ties to Davis did abstain on the vote.

Perhaps the most notorious of the Woods Fund recipients was the Arab American Action Network (AAAN). AAAN was established in 1995 as non-profit group supposedly dedicated to improving the conditions of Arab immigrants in the Chicago area.

But its activities were hardly benign. For example, AAAN sponsored a Palestinian art exhibit on the “Nakba” — that is, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s establishment in 1948. AAAN’s officials routinely have made statements vilifying Israel. AAAN Board member Ali Abunimah in 2002 declared: “‘By deliberately denying food, water and medical aid, and wantonly destroying public and private property, and deliberately destroying the economy in the occupied territories, Israel is in flagrant breach of this [Geneva] Convention. … Unfortunately, we are seeing the world turn a blind eye to atrocities being committed under its nose.” (Abunimah co-founded and operates the Electronic Intifada, a website replete with anti-Israel slurs and which declares Israel to be an apartheid state.)

On the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, Hatem Abudayyeh, executive director of AAAN, announced: “Arafat was a great man. Yes, Arafat was an icon. … We’re saddened by his death, but we don’t ignore the fact that this is not an issue of individuals, it’s an issue of a people who have been oppressed and occupied for 55 years.”

Also serving on the Woods Fund at the time was Palestinian activist and now professor at Columbia University Rashid Khalidi, whose wife headed AAAN. The Woods Fund granted AAAN $40,000 in 2001 and $70,000 in 2002. As Salon magazine wrote, this was “nepotism, Chicago style.”

Khalidi, a former spokesman for Yasser Arafat, held a fundraiser for Obama in 2000 during his unsuccessful bid for Congress. In 2003, during a dinner honoring Khalidi for becoming the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia, Obama warmly praised his friend, reminiscing about the many meals cooked for him by Khalidi’s wife Mona and of the discussions he and Khalidi held that were “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases. … It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation — a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.”

The pattern of funneling money to political allies and their allies is evident throughout Obama’s tenure at the Woods Fund. Tens and tens of thousands of dollars were granted to organizations including the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPPPI), the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Centers for New Horizons, the Chicago Jobs Council, the Chicago Education Fund, the Chicago Institute on Urban Poverty, the Chicago Urban League, The Gamaliel Foundation. Dozens of the board members and officials from these organizations in turn would donate money, in many instances up to the legal limit, for Obama’s Senate and Presidential races between 2004 and 2008.

For example the Woods Fund between 1999 and 2002 granted $60,000 to BPPPI. Board member and executives donated at least $16,950 to Obama’s political campaigns. The Woods Fund granted the Center of Neighborhood Technology $150,000 between 1999 and 2002. Obama received over $24,000 in campaign donations from its officials. And in turn Obama made sure to seek earmarks on their behalf once he reached the U.S. Senate.

A similar pattern of mutual financial help existed with regard to many of these organizations. While there is no evidence of an explicit quid pro quo, what is apparent is that the seeds of long term relationships and a network of financial support were sewn while Obama was a Woods board member.

Obama’s tenure with the Woods Fund is perhaps most noteworthy for his association with former terrorist Bill Ayers. Ayers served on the Woods board for three years of Obama’s tenure and remained on the board after Obama departed. Hillary Clinton raised this issue earlier this year at the Philadelphia debate when Obama, as he has done throughout the campaign, tried to minimize his relationship with Ayers.

That exchange was set off with a question asking Obama to explain his relationship with Ayers:

OBAMA: This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George.

The fact is that I’m also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who, during his campaign, once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.

Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s statements? Because I certainly don’t agree with those, either.

So this kind of game in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, that somehow their ideas could be attributed to me, I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.

CLINTON: Well, I think that is a fair general statement, but I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position.

And, if I’m not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn’t done more.

And what they did was set bombs. And in some instances, people died. So it is — I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about.

And I have no doubt — I know Senator Obama’s a good man and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.

Clinton was right, of course. Ayers also headed the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an educational foundation dedicated to school reform that was funded by an initial $49 million grant from the Annenberg family foundation. (Annenberg recently was in the news when the University of Chicago first sealed the records and then agreed to open them to National Review‘s Stanley Kurtz and other reporters seeking to explore that organization’s records.)

The Woods Fund in 1999 granted $50,000 to the Annenberg Challenge — that is one organization on which Obama and Ayers served giving funds to another headed by Ayers and on which Obama also served as chairman for three years beginning in 1995 and then as a board member until 2001.

The Annenberg Challenge has since come under scrutiny — and Obama’s involvement therewith as well — because of criticism that the Annenberg Challenge failed to improve student achievement. The Los Angeles Times termed it a “bust.” A USA Today column in 1998 noted, “Expectations, in fact, may prove to be the biggest stumbling block to the legacy of the Annenberg gift. In some circles, conservatives see snail’s pace-progress among schools benefiting from Annenberg’s largesse and use it as a public school parable: Give big money to public schools and it will be absorbed into the bureaucracy with little benefit.” As Education Week put it, “It was ultimately unsuccessful in raising student achievement, according to evaluations of the project.”

Another recipient of the Woods Fund largesse was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an organization infamous for its left wing agenda. Stanley Kurtz who has researched ACORN’s far-left agenda described its “in your face tactics”:

Just think of Code Pink’s well-known operations (threatening to occupy congressional offices, interrupting the testimony of General David Petraeus) and you’ll get the idea. Acorn protesters have disrupted Federal Reserve hearings, but mostly deploy their aggressive tactics locally. Chicago is home to one of its strongest chapters, and Acorn has burst into a closed city council meeting there. Acorn protestors in Baltimore disrupted a bankers’ dinner and sent four busloads of profanity-screaming protestors against the mayor’s home, terrifying his wife and kids. Even a Baltimore city council member who generally supports Acorn said their intimidation tactics had crossed the line.

During Obama’s time on the Woods Funds ACORN received grants of $45,000 (2000), $30,000 (2001), $45,000 (2001), $30,000 (2002), and $40,000 (2002) from the Woods Fund. (Obama in the early 1990′s helped train ACORN organizers and later served as counsel in 1995 for ACORN in a “motor voter” registration lawsuit.) And ACORN certainly appreciated whatever assistance Obama afforded the radical organization over the years.

Founder Toni Foulkes enthusiastically backed Obama’s U.S. Senate run in 2004, declaring: “ACORN is active in experimenting with methods of increasing voter participation in our low and moderate income communities to virtually every election. But in some elections we get to have our cake and eat it too: work on nonpartisan voter registration and GOTV, which also turns out to benefit the candidate we hold dear [Obama].”

In short, no less than six years ago Obama served along side Ayers as a board member on an organization happy to pass out funds to radical left wing and anti-Israel groups. Moreover, the monies doled out through the Woods Fund to these groups, including Ayers own Annenberg Challenge, helped cement Obama’s political relationships and bond with key players in Chicago. None of this matches his current self-portrait of a politically moderate reformer. But like so much of Obama, that was then and this is now.

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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