Wednesday, August 20

The tangled tale of Barack Obama, William Ayers, and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge

5:00 PM Update
Steve will be a guest on John Batchelor's radio show this Sunday on the KFI 640-AM portion, at 10:20 PM Eastern time, to discuss Annenberg-gate. Here is the link for the KFI online broadcast.
Law professor and political scientist Steve Diamond at Global Labor and Politics blog guest posts on "Annenberg-Gate:" It's not the crime, it's the cover up

Yesterday there was some very interesting blogosphere discussion in reaction to the National Review piece on the blocking of access to research material on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

One comment noted: it's not the crime, it's the cover up and now the University of Illinois has provided the cover up.

Ironic, that a public university would attempt to prevent a legitimate author and journalist - with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard to boot - from accessing documents legitimately housed in their library. Ironic, and possibly illegal.

The flimsy manufactured excuse - most likely provided to the library by the University's general counsel - is that the University does not have a "deed of gift" which the university contends is required for it to, legitimately, claim possession of the archived material.

Unfortunately, this is a bad reading of the law. The only question to be answered, really, is what was the intent of the donor? Did the donor intend to give the University the thousands of pages of material related to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge? If so, then the gift is perfectly valid, the material belongs to the University and should be made available to researchers (including both journalists and academics). And, the donor could legitimately claim a tax deduction for the donation of the archives.

In other words, the real question here is one of tax law: would the IRS or the Illinois Department of Revenue have grounds to claim that any tax deduction claimed as a result of the donor's gift was invalid? The absence of a deed of gift, no matter what the University library now says, would not invalidate the gift. All that the IRS cares about is whether the donated material is related to the University's tax exempt purpose - in other words, education and research.

In fact, the deed of gift is really for the protection of the University, and usually is drafted by them in a standardized form (and that's why courts can construe ambiguities against the drafter of such a contract - the drafter usually is in a position to draft the contract to protect their interests.)

(Here is how the University of California, for example, explains the process.)

There are several important unanswered questions here.

1) On what basis would a public university, after agreeing to allow Dr. Kurtz access to the Annenberg Challenge archives in its possession, alert the donor of the documents?

The only possible answer is that somewhere along the chain of command someone set off an alarm bell because of the conservative affiliations of Dr. Kurtz.

2) Is it merely coincidence that one of the board members of the Annenberg Challenge was Stanley Ikenberry, a former University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) President and currently Regent Professor and President Emeritus of the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) College of Education?

3) Did the general counsel of the university invent the excuse that absent a "deed of gift" the university could not claim possession of the archives?

4) How could the University make a detailed "finding aid" available to Dr. Kurtz for a collection that it did not legally possess?

Finding aids are detailed outlines of the archival material prepared by a library staff to aid researchers in their work. They are prepared only at the end of the "process" by which donated materials come into the legitimate possession of the library. There would be no reason to prepare a finding aid, now fortunately in the possession of Dr. Kurtz, unless the material was legitimately in the library's possession.

In fact the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the sister campus to the University of Illinois at Circle Campus Chicago, makes it explicit that it will not invest time in preparing donated material without a valid gift. Its online guidelines state: "The University cannot invest materials and labor in the care of collections which it does not own." Those guidelines make it clear that the "deed of gift" is for the protection of the University, as I suggested above.

5) What is the role of the successor organization to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, the Chicago Public Education Fund?

Legally, a non profit corporation like the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) has a responsibility to its beneficiaries, the Illinois public. Ultimately it must serve their interests in order to have claimed tax exempt status. Thus, its records must be maintained throughout its life and then handed to its successor. The Attorney General of Illinois has ultimate authority over those records.

When the CAC went out of business it handed its assets, and presumably its records, to the Chicago Public Education Fund (CPEF). Perhaps Susan Crown, who sits on the CPEF board and sat on the board of the CAC with Barack Obama, can explain where the records of the CAC are?

Perhaps Penny Pritzker, whose family foundation donated $100,000 to the CAC and who now also sits on the board of the CPEF, and who also chairs the finance committee of the Obama campaign can explain what has happened to the missing records?

Like Dr. Kurtz, I have conducted archival research on several continents and in dozens of libraries, from London to Managua to Berkeley to Palo Alto, even in Chicago itself, at several of its libraries. I have conducted research on issues as sensitive as the origins of the Manhattan Project to the police state set up by the Sandinistas. And not once have I found a library door closed in my face like this. Not even by the FSLN in Managua itself.

This may explain why I ran into a smaller version of the door in the face from a university recently. As Global Labor readers know I laid out the basic trajectory of the CAC through a review of the CAC's financial statements, board minutes and annual and semi-annual reports, provided to me by Brown University, which housed the original national Annenberg Challenge. Once I posted my first discussion of what I found in these records, I sent additional requests for information to Brown.

However, while the representative from the university I originally corresponded with had been quite friendly and accommodating prior to my June 23 post, afterwards my additional requests for further information went unanswered. I did not pursue it at the time because I felt I had told a significant part of the story already. Thanks to the diligent work of Dr. Kurtz, however, we now know there is much more to know.

Of course, the larger question here is - why the concern? why the alarm bells? why the cover-up? is it simply because Dr. Kurtz is with National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley?
One remaining possibility, of course, is that somehow word that there was interest in the materials was leaked to Bill Ayers, who conceived of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, co-authored the original successful $49.2 million grant proposal, and then co-chaired the key operative body of the CAC, the Chicago School Reform Collaborative. The original CAC offices were housed in the same building as Ayers' office, rent free courtesy of the University. That was also where Ayers housed his Small Schools Workshop, headed by his old SDS buddy, the Maoist Mike Klonsky, which received a $175,000 grant from, you guessed it, the CAC, whose board was chaired by Barack Obama.

Ayers has been pretty mum of late and maybe quite nervous about the possibility that a close look at the day to day records of the CAC will reveal more about what I have already found out: that he and Barack Obama had a close working relationship during the life of the CAC. The CAC actively and aggressively intervened in a major political war going on in Chicago in the mid 90s over school reform - against the goals of the powerful Chicago mayor, Richard Daley.

Obama's aim at the time was likely to "make his bones" politically and to establish a relationship with well heeled liberals, all as part of a potential challenge to Daley himself, as a second Harold Washington, one of Obama's heroes. The cards broke in another direction for Obama, of course, and now he finds himself trying for a slightly more powerful political role.

Unfortunately for Senator Obama, what might only stink in Chicago - a relationship with an ex-terrorist who had an authoritarian agenda in mind for Chicago school kids - is far more damaging on the national political scene.

Stanley Kurtz on Barack Obama, Bill Ayers & Chicago Annenberg Challenge on National Review Online

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