Rush's million-dollar conflict? (article from the Chicago Sun-Times)

Posted by Scott - September 28, 2006 (entry 425)

Rush's million-dollar conflict?

April 25, 2006

BY LYNN SWEET Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- An Englewood community center founded by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a key player on telecommunications legislation, received a $1 million grant from the charitable arm of SBC/AT&T, one of the nation's largest phone companies.

The chief of a congressional watchdog group says Rush's ongoing association with the Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corporation and his role in shaping telecommunications law as a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee is a conflict of interest. Using charitable giving as a backdoor way to curry favor with lawmakers is coming under increasing scrutiny, figuring in controversies associated with former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who was forced to temporarily step aside as the ranking Democrat on the Ethics panel.

On Wednesday, the energy and commerce panel on which Rush sits is set to vote on a controversial rewrite of telecommunications law co-sponsored by Rush and backed by major phone companies eager to compete with cable television companies.

"It is a clear conflict of interest for Rep. Rush to weigh in on this bill," said Sheila Krumholz, the acting executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which researches money in politics. "People can disagree about where to draw the line on contributions and abstaining from votes, but $1 million is definitely over that line."

Rush is the only Democrat to sponsor the "Communications Opportunity Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006." He has been working with committee chair Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) to promote the "Barton-Rush" bill.

Rush, asked to explain whether he had a conflict in sponsoring telecommunications legislation in the wake of the grant, replied in a statement that the "real conflict" stems from inequities in the telecommunications marketplace that hurt the poor.

"It is a systemic institutional disinvestment in [the] poor by corporate America in communities such as Englewood," Rush said. "We deserve an even playing field."

Final check written in 2004

The SBC Foundation grant was given to the Rebirth of Englewood CDC, a non-profit dedicated to improving the economy of the impoverished South Side community in Rush's congressional district.

Rush and his wife, Carolyn, are on the board of the Englewood organization, and his son, Flynn, works for the center. Rush has been a member of the Energy and Commerce panel for more than a decade and serves on its subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

The SBC charity made the first of a series of payments totaling $1 million in 2001 to the Englewood group to create the still unbuilt "Bobby L. Rush Center for Community Technology." The final check was written in 2004, with the SBC Foundation delaying the last payment for a year over concerns that the project was not moving forward. The Rush center is now expected to open within the next 12 months.

In his statement, Rush -- seeking to downplay the conflict claim -- noted that the $1 million grant "you are referring to is over a half decade old."

Rush says it sparks competition

Communications giant SBC Communications Inc. acquired AT&T last year and switched over to the AT&T name. AT&T spokesman Claudia Jones said the company remains "hopeful" that the center will be built and stressed its importance to Englewood residents.

"The people in Englewood should not suffer because they have a congressman on the Energy and Commerce Committee," Jones said.

The Barton-Rush measure gives phone companies a national television franchise and avoids the need to get approval from 30,000 local governments.

Rush argues that this will provide more competition and cheaper services for low-income communities.

Critics of the Barton-Rush bill counter that the bill offers no guarantees that a company would go to the expense of investing in building infrastructure to serve the kind of poor neighborhoods Rush represents. The measure was approved in subcommittee on a 27-4 vote, with 11 Democratic "yes" votes.

Celia Wexler, vice president of Common Cause, another watchdog group (which opposes the bill because of threats to Internet freedoms) said, merits of the bill aside, the SBC grant and Rush's relationship with the center is "troubling."

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