Seeking scandal, but lacking evidence of wrongdoing, media "raise questions" about Obama


In Roll Call's April 9 "Heard on the Hill" column (subscription required), staff writer Emily Heil claimed that an April 1 photo that appeared in The New York Times Magazine of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) talking in his Senate office with David Axelrod, the Obama 2008 presidential campaign chief media and political adviser, was the "equivalent of a paparazzi gotcha of a disheveled Lindsay Lohan leaving a Los Angeles hotel with her latest crush" because "Congressional ethics rules forbid the use of federal office space for political and campaign activity." However, in the very next sentence, Heil explained that the photo is not "evidence of any wrongdoing" and noted that "Ken Gross, an election law expert, said that while ethics rules are very specific that fundraising activities using federal resources is a no-no, there is no law per se that prohibits talking shop." She then cited an unnamed Democratic strategist saying the photo "does raise some flags" and "could be viewed as a rookie mistake" -- echoing a phrase The Politico used to describe some of Obama's admittedly "trivial" inconsistencies.

The Roll Call column is just the most recent example of an emerging trend in the media's treatment of Obama. In the past six months, there have been several news reports that have purported to expose wrongdoing on Obama's part, but, at the same time, noted that there exists no allegation or evidence that Obama acted improperly. Nevertheless, these reports claim that Obama's actions "raise questions" or "raise flags" -- presumably as justification for publishing a piece that contains no real evidence of impropriety.

From Roll Call's April 9 "Heard on the Hill" column:

As far as photos go, the snapshot of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and political adviser David Axelrod in The New York Times Magazine last week, accompanying a profile on Axelrod, looked pretty tame.

But to political dorks (like HOH), it might have been the Washington, D.C., equivalent of a paparazzi gotcha of a disheveled Lindsay Lohan leaving a Los Angeles hotel with her latest crush.

See, Chicago-based Axelrod is Obama's chief political and media adviser, and the photo was shot in the Senator's Capitol Hill office. Obama, well, he's the guy running for the Democratic presidential nomination as a reformer and a political "outsider." And Congressional ethics rules forbid the use of federal office space for political and campaign activity.

Not that the photo is evidence of any wrongdoing, mind you. Ken Gross, an election law expert, said that while ethics rules are very specific that fundraising activities using federal resources is a no-no, there is no law per se that prohibits talking shop.

"It's OK to have a political discussion in your Capitol Hill office," Gross said.

Still, Gross notes that having a photo taken of a lawmaker's top political strategist in his official office might not be the most desirable image. "I suppose he could have considered a better backdrop," he added.

A spokeswoman for the Obama camp declined to comment.

"Appearance matters," agreed one Democratic strategist who isn't affiliated with a presidential contender.

Obama and Axelrod are old buddies whose relationship dates back years and they could have been having an innocuous conversation, the strategist noted. But it does raise some flags, he added, which is the last thing a contender in a competitive race with a polished, practiced vet such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) wants to do. "It could be seen as a rookie mistake," the consultant said.

And as any Hollywood star or starlet could tell you, if you're going to make a mistake, make sure there aren't any cameras around.

Senate ethics rules state:

Senate space, equipment, staff time, and resources generally should not be used to assist campaign organizations. Certain de minimis overlap between the official office and the campaign inevitably may occur and is permissible; such de minimis overlap includes scheduling assistance between offices and, as noted above, press response to ''official'' inquiries that may also include inquiries about campaign matters.

Federal law prohibits the use of federal office space for fundraising activity but does not forbid simply discussing campaign politics. According to U.S. Code 18, 607: "It shall be unlawful for an individual who is an officer or employee of the Federal Government, including the President, Vice President, and Members of Congress, to solicit or receive a donation of money or other thing of value in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an officer or employee of the United States, from any person."

As Media Matters for America noted, in a front-page March 7 article, The New York Times reported that Obama "bought more than $50,000 worth of stock in two speculative companies whose major investors included some of his biggest political donors" and quoted an Obama spokesman saying that Obama "did not know that he had invested in either company until fall 2005, when he learned of it and decided to sell the stocks." The spokesman added that Obama "sold [the stocks] at a net loss of $13,000." The article also noted that "[t]here is no evidence that any of his actions ended up benefiting either company during the roughly eight months that he owned the stocks" and that "Senate ethics rules do not prohibit lawmakers from owning stocks -- even in companies that do business with the federal government or could benefit from legislation they advance -- and indeed other members of Congress have investments in government contractors."

Regardless, the Times went on to report:

Even so, the stock purchases raise questions about how he could unwittingly come to invest in two relatively obscure companies, whose backers happen to include generous contributors to his political committees. Among those donors was Jared Abbruzzese, a New York businessman now at the center of an F.B.I. inquiry into public corruption in Albany, who had also contributed to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that sought to undermine John Kerry's Democratic presidential campaign in 2004.

The Times story quickly spread to the rest of the media, and several media figures cited the article as evidence of an Obama "scandal," or to falsely claim Obama was facing ethics allegations.

The Chicago Tribune reported on November 1, 2006, that Obama and Chicago Democratic fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko -- who had "pleaded not guilty to federal charges involving pay-to-play allegations that surround Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration" -- bought adjoining properties on the same day in 2005 and that as Obama and Rezko "jointly worked to improve their side-by-side properties, the two men entered an ongoing series of personal financial arrangements." The Tribune article contained no allegation of wrongdoing and quoted Obama saying: "I haven't been involved with [Rezko] in any legislative work whatsoever or any government activities of any sort." The article noted: "In normal circumstances, the two real estate transactions probably wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. There is, after all, nothing illegal or untoward about an aggressive developer buying hot property next door to a rising political star."

However, despite no allegation or evidence of impropriety, the Tribune reported:

Now the hows and whys of a real estate deal, and a train of subsequent transactions, are raising questions about the relationship between the two men, as Obama struggles to distance himself from Rezko, and Rezko strives to stay out of prison. teased a December 14 article on the Obama-Rezko land deal as: "Inside Obama's Shady Real Estate Deal." Bearing the headline "Barackwater," the article itself reported: "There's no evidence that the senator is fibbing or that the indicted fund-raiser asked anything in return for his neighborly behavior (though that might have been just a matter of time). Obama hasn't tried to change his story, even though Rezko is now talking to investigators."

Nevertheless, Slate noted:

When you read the Chicago columnists having fun with the relationship between Obama and Rezko, the wiseacre rubs off on you. Here's the story, without the mustard: Barack Obama has a little real-estate scandal that raises questions about his judgment.

The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Hill, Roll Call, Slate Magazine
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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