Media ignore key details in Obama/Rezko letter story

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

On June 13, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), while serving as an Illinois state senator in 1998, "did a political favor" for Chicago Democratic fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko by writing letters to state and local government officials in support of a Chicago housing project proposed by Rezko's company, New Kenwood LLC. The Sun-Times asserted that the "letters appear to contradict a statement last December from Obama, who told the Chicago Tribune that, in all the years he's known Rezko, 'I've never done any favors for him.' '' In reporting on this story, however, several media outlets omitted statements included in the Sun-Times article that challenge the paper's assertion that Obama performed a "favor" for Rezko -- specifically, Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton's claim that "I don't know that anyone specifically asked him to write this letter," and Rezko's attorney's claim that Rezko "never spoke with, nor sought a letter from, Senator Obama in connection with that project."

In October 2006, Rezko was indicted on charges that he "used his influence as one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's closest advisers and fundraisers to seek millions of dollars in kickbacks and campaign donations from firms seeking state business," according to the Chicago Tribune.

From the June 13 Sun-Times article, headlined "Obama's letters for Rezko":

As a state senator, Barack Obama wrote letters to city and state officials supporting his political patron Tony Rezko's successful bid to get more than $14 million from taxpayers to build apartments for senior citizens.

The deal included $855,000 in development fees for Rezko and his partner, Allison S. Davis, Obama's former boss, according to records from the project, which was four blocks outside Obama's state Senate district.

Obama's letters, written nearly nine years ago, for the first time show the Democratic presidential hopeful did a political favor for Rezko -- a longtime friend, campaign fund-raiser and client of the law firm where Obama worked -- who was indicted last fall on federal charges that accuse him of demanding kickbacks from companies seeking state business under Gov. Blagojevich.

The letters appear to contradict a statement last December from Obama, who told the Chicago Tribune that, in all the years he's known Rezko, "I've never done any favors for him.''

The Sun-Times, however, went on to quote Burton claiming that he did not "know that anyone specifically asked him to write this letter," and Rezko attorney Joseph Duffy saying that Rezko had not asked Obama to write the letters -- undermining the article's claim that the letters constituted "a political favor":

On Tuesday, Bill Burton, press secretary for Obama's presidential campaign, said the letters Obama wrote in support of the development weren't intended as a favor to Rezko or Davis.

"This wasn't done as a favor for anyone," Burton said in a written statement. "It was done in the interests of the people in the community who have benefited from the project.

"I don't know that anyone specifically asked him to write this letter nine years ago," the statement said. "There was a consensus in the community about the positive impact the project would make and Obama supported it because it was going to help people in his district. ... They had a wellness clinic and adult day-care services, as well as a series of social services for residents. It's a successful project. It's meant a lot to the community, and he's proud to have supported it.''

The development, called the Cottage View Terrace apartments, opened five years ago at 4801 S. Cottage Grove, providing 97 apartments for low-income senior citizens.

Asked about the Obama letters, Rezko's attorney, Joseph Duffy, said Tuesday, "Mr. Rezko never spoke with, nor sought a letter from, Senator Obama in connection with that project."

While reporting on this story, several media outlets left out either Burton's or Duffy's statement, or both. The June 13 edition of ABC News' political online newsletter The Note cited the Sun-Times' claim that the "letters appear to contradict" Obama's claim that he has never done a favor for Rezko, but did not quote either Burton or Duffy. Rather, The Note reported that "[t]he Obama camp is casting it as an attempt to increase housing for seniors." From the June 13 edition of "The Note":

Obama wrote letters to local officials on behalf of a project controlled by indicted real-estate dealmaker Tony Rezko, the Chicago Sun-Times' Tim Novak reports. "The letters appear to contradict a statement last December from Obama, who told the Chicago Tribune that, in all the years he's known Rezko, 'I've never done any favors for him.'" (The Obama camp is casting it as an attempt to increase housing for seniors.)

A June 14 New York Times article and a June 13 report on CNN's The Situation Room featured statements from Burton regarding the letters, but neither addressed whether Rezko had asked Obama to write the letters, nor mentioned Duffy's statement.

From the Times article:

[Years earlier, as a state legislator, Mr. Obama wrote letters to city and state officials supporting efforts by Mr. Rezko and a partner to build apartments for the elderly with $14 million in government money, The Chicago Sun-Times reported in its June 13 editions. The developers received $855,000 in fees.]

Mr. Obama's spokesman, Bill Burton, said the senator was one of several politicians who intervened because the project was important to local residents.

Mr. Burton also said in a statement that the senator "has held himself to a high standard and has had a career in public service fighting for the toughest possible ethical rules."

"This is not a record changed by anything that has happened to Tony Rezko," Mr. Burton said.

From the June 13 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

WOLF BLITZER (anchor): There are also some new questions about Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama's ties to a Chicago developer. Tony Rezko is a former Obama supporter and donor now under federal indictment. A published report says Obama once wrote letters in support of Rezko Development, while Obama was serving in the state Senate.

CNN's [national correspondent] Keith Oppenheim is watching this story for us. Keith is joining us now live. Keith, so, update our viewers who are not familiar with what's going on. What's going on? Because in Chicago, at least, this has been an uproar of sorts.

OPPENHEIM: It has. And really, there are a couple of possibilities as to what this could mean for Obama's campaign. One is that all this about Tony Rezko and his connections to him just may be a slight tarnish to Obama's reputation, if at all. But a bad scenario for Senator Obama is that this story could be an ongoing liability, one that could really put the candidate's credibility into question.

[begin video clip]

OPPENHEIM: In Chicago politics, Tony Rezko has been someone to know, a player in real estate. He's known Barack Obama for 17 years and contributed thousands to his numerous campaigns.

Last year, Rezko was indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of demanding kickbacks from companies that want to do business with the state. Rezko pleaded not guilty. But while Rezko was under investigation, Obama bought a house in Chicago and a sliver of the property next door owned by Rezko's wife. Jay Stewart is the director of a Chicago watchdog group called the Better Government Association.

STEWART: That raised a lot of eyebrows -- not the transaction itself, but the fact that, at that point, everybody in Illinois knew Tony Rezko was being looked at by the federal government.

OPPENHEIM: Obama tried to put the matter to rest last December, when he told the Chicago Tribune, regarding Tony Rezko, "I've never done any favors for him."

Today, the Chicago Sun-Times produced a 1998 letter, which, the paper said, suggests otherwise. Obama, who was then a state senator, wrote to city officials on behalf of one of Rezko's real estate deals to build a senior citizen complex on Chicago's South Side. Campaign press secretary Bill Burton told the Sun-Times, "This wasn't done as a favor for anyone. It was done in the interest of the people in the community, who have benefited from the project."

Burton told CNN, "The fact of the matter is Obama has led a career fighting for the toughest possible ethics reforms in government. This sort of thing isn't a worry to us."

The question is: Is there more to Obama's relationship with Tony Rezko that could become a distraction?

[end video clip]

OPPENHEIM: Wolf, Senator Obama has been trying pretty hard to distance himself from Tony Rezko. Last week, his campaign donated $23,000 in charity -- that's money that came from three of Rezko's business associates. Now, last year, the campaign donated $11,000 in charity. That's money that came directly from Tony Rezko. Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much. Keith Oppenheim, watching this story in Chicago for us.

Other media outlets -- including Fox News and MSNBC.com -- reported Burton's comments to the Sun-Times but failed to note Duffy's claim that Rezko never asked Obama to write the letters.

From a June 13 entry on MSNBC.com's First Read weblog:

The Chicago Sun-Times reports today that, as a state senator, Obama wrote letters supporting indicted developer Tony Rezko's bid to win more than $14 million in contracts, which appears to contradict Obama's earlier claim that he's never done favors for Rezko. Obama's camp responds that the letters he wrote were intended to benefit the community, not Rezko. "As the Sun Times acknowledges in today's article, Senator Obama didn't support this project as a favor to anyone -- he did in an effort to have the most positive impact on his community possible," the campaign says. One thing seems to be sure, however: So far, Obama is getting tougher treatment from his hometown newspapers (especially the Sun-Times) than Clinton is from hers.

From the June 13 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

BRIT HUME (host): Barack Obama's hometown newspaper is reporting that he wrote letters to city and state officials nine years ago supporting political patron Tony Rezko's efforts to build apartments for senior citizens. The Chicago Sun-Times writes the letters appear to contradict a statement last December where Obama said, quote, "I've never done any favors for him."

Rezko was indicted last fall on federal charges that he demanded kickbacks from companies seeking state business. Obama has admitted to what he called a "bone-headed" -- his word -- real estate deal with Rezko, calling it a mistake. Rezko has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama's election efforts.

Obama's campaign press secretary says the Rezko letters were written in order to benefit the people who would live in the apartments that Rezko was trying to build.

Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel, MSNBC, The New York Times, CNN, ABCNews.com
Person
Brit Hume
Show/Publication
Special Report with Brit Hume, The Situation Room
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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