'Obamazebo' Project Under Investigation; Sun-Times Follows Up; Drudge Takes Note

obamazebosign.jpgThis post updates primary work done by the Chicago Sun-Times in July (accompanying video is here), this September 7 post at NewsBusters, and two related posts (here and here) at BizzyBlog. Graphics are mostly courtesy of NewsBusters commenter "tnculp." Hat tips go to all who tipped me to the news.

In a Thursday story by Chris Fusco and Dave McKinney that has been linked by Drudge, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on the latest developments relating to what was supposed to be a Barack Obama-sponsored $1.1 million botanical garden in an economically blighted area on the South Side of Chicago -- complete with "a gazebo, a parrot sanctuary, and a walk of fame."

While an Illinois state senator in 2001, Obama, as the Sun-Times reported in July, "gave $100,000 in state money to a campaign volunteer who failed to deliver" on the initial phase of the work or to garner additional community funds, leaving "what was supposed to be a six-block stretch of trees and paths ..... a field of unfulfilled dreams, strewn with weeds, garbage and broken pavement."

Now Illinois' Attorney General is investigating, and has determined where much of the money went -- sort of (bolds are mine throughout this post):

A $100,000 state grant for a botanic garden in Englewood that then-state Sen. Barack Obama awarded in 2001 to a group headed by a onetime campaign volunteer is now under investigation by the Illinois attorney general amid new questions, prompted by Chicago Sun-Times reports, about whether the money might have been misspent.

The garden was never built. And now state records obtained by the Sun-Times show $65,000 of the grant money went to the wife of Kenny B. Smith, the Obama 2000 congressional campaign volunteer who heads the Chicago Better Housing Association, which was in charge of the project for the blighted South Side neighborhood.

Smith wrote another $20,000 in grant-related checks to K.D. Contractors, a construction company that his wife, Karen D. Smith, created five months after work on the garden was supposed to have begun, records show. K.D. is no longer in business.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan -- a Democrat who is supporting Obama's presidential bid -- is investigating "whether this charitable organization properly used its charitable assets, including the state funds it received," Cara Smith, Madigan's deputy chief of staff, said Wednesday.

In addition to the 2001 grant that Obama directed to the housing association as a "member initiative," the not-for-profit group got a separate $20,000 state grant in 2006.

Madigan's office has notified Obama's presidential campaign of the probe, which was launched this week. But Obama's actions in awarding the money are not a focus of the investigation, Smith said.

..... Obama vowed to "work tirelessly" to raise $1.1 million to help Smith's organization turn the City of Chicago-owned lot into an oasis of trees and paths. But Obama lost the congressional race, no more money was raised, and today the garden site is a mess of weeds, chunks of concrete and garbage. The only noticeable improvement is a gazebo.

..... Citing the garden's failure to take root, NeighborSpace -- an umbrella group for dozens of community gardens citywide -- moved Sept. 9 to return the site to the city. Its action followed a July 11 Sun-Times report on the grant.

..... Neither Smith nor his wife has been accused of any wrongdoing. Smith and his lawyer did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Fusco and McKinney further reported that they found one contractor on the project who apparently received no more than $3,000 for work that contractor as "Clean up the area and cut the trees -- that's all." Smith claimed in July that this contractor did "underground work, but the original Sun-Times report "found no evidence of the work Smith cited." Regardless, what Mr. and Mrs. Smith did with the remaining $97,000 (perhaps minus the cost of the now-decaying gazebo) remains unexplained.

Readers can go to a new video at today's Sun-Times story and decide for themselves how credible Mr. Smith is. I'll just say that where Mr. Smith thought the rest of the money was going to come from is totally different from what he was telling people in 2000 and 2001.

The Sun-Times has clearly done very thorough and tenacious work over the past few months, and I don't want to minimize that. At the same time, I hope the Sun-Times doesn't mind it if I question whether NeighborSpace's move to give up the site was in reaction the paper's July story, or to the heavily-trafficked September 7 NewsBusters and BizzyBlog posts that gave the situation wider distribution.

The referenced gazebo is what "tnculp" famously dubbed the Obamazebo:

obamazebo.jpg

Maybe Obama's "actions" aren't under investigation by the state's Democratic Attorney General, but his vaunted "Judgment to Lead" should be.

Paraphrasing what I wrote earlier this month and back in July, this sad saga is no trifling matter, but rather goes directly to the Illinois Senator's fitness to be president:

  • In July, Obama claimed that the state governor's staff should have been monitoring the grant. This shows that he felt no sense of responsibility for the results of money directed to someone HE chose, and despite a previous promise to "work tirelessly" to ensure that the project came to fruition. This isn't "the buck stops here" of Harry Truman fame; this is "the buck went somewhere else."
  • Gubernatorial staffs aren't responsible for monitoring projects like this. The blame-shifting to other pols is either hopelessly naive (a legitimate possibility, given the Obama's seemingly endless well of ignorance) or irresponsible.
  • If you look at the full text of the press release that announced the project in 2000, you'll see that Smith was on hand, that he made representations about how he was "work(ing) with a variety of governmental agencies and not-for-profit groups to secure funding this project," and that he had "made some progress." My bet: Smith had, at most, met with a few organizations once or twice, and was blowing smoke about his realistic chances of getting money. For a nominal $550 in campaign contributions and some volunteer hours, Smith got 100 grand, which "somehow" mostly made its way to him and his wife, with no real accountability thus far. Face it: Obama got hustled. I doubt that he even looked into how the rest of the "fund-raising" was going before directing the release of the grant funds.
  • Perhaps that's why Obama seems oddly indifferent to what ultimately happened. The response from his spokesman (and not the candidate) is tired boilerplate about "provid(ing) residents with a livable neighborhood." Zzzzzz.

The larger point is this: The guy is hopelessly gullible, can't even get a $100,000 grant right, and now wants to have the final say in matters relating to a $3-plus trillion federal budget and a $14-trillion economy in a town chock full of con artists and tricksters.

Yikes. We're talking about something that, using Obama's own words on a different matter, is way above his pay grade -- and his abilities.

The Obama campaign's reaction to the latest developments is more snooze material, as Fusco and McKinney noted:

Obama spokesman Michael Ortiz said Wednesday the senator's staff in Washington will monitor the Madigan probe and an additional review under way by Gov. Blagojevich's administration to make sure "the taxpayer funds allocated for the construction of the garden are recuperated from CBHA if the agencies determine that the funds were not properly spent." Obama's goal is to ensure the site "be used in a way that benefits the community and that any taxpayer dollars allocated are spent wisely," Ortiz said.

Well, that would be a switch.

Thank goodness that Drudge is helping get the Obamazebo snafu a bit more of the national visibility it deserves. I'll bet that very few traditional media outlets, if any, will.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.