After completely ignoring the story, ABC investigative correspondent Brian Ross finally featured a segment on a questionable real estate deal by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. On Thursday's "Good Morning America," the reporter looked at the Illinois senator's relationship with Tony Rezko, a political operator who raised cash for candidates. Rezko, who will go on trial in February for charges related to bribes and extortion, played a role in a house purchase by Obama.
Although local Illinois media outlets, such as the Chicago Sun Times, have been covering the story for much of 2006 and 2007, a Nexis search finds only one mention on ABC, prior to the Ross report on Thursday. (On May 13, 2007, "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos briefly quizzed Obama on the subject.) Ross's investigations of Republicans often include a sneering, sarcastic tone that was lacking in his segment on Obama. In October of '07, he claimed that after listening to 1973 Watergate tapes of '08 Republican candidate Fred Thompson, a "much different, less valiant picture of Thompson emerges."
In December of 2007, while filing a report on GOP contender Mike Huckabee and the his record on crime, Ross leveled charges of hypocrisy. (For a recap of these charges, see my December 5, 2007 NewsBusters posting.)
The ABC reporter introduced his investigation of the Illinois senator this way: "Senator Obama says no lobbyist would be permitted to work in his White House...All of which makes his relationship with an accused Illinois political fixer and influence peddler all the more unusual." But his report lacked the usual snarky tone. The case relates to the role that Rezko role played in helping Obama secure the purchase of a new home in Chicago. Ross explained the details this way:
BRIAN ROSS: ...It emerged that Rezko had quietly played a role in Obama's purchase of a new home. Obama bought the house on Chicago's south side in June, 2005, after he had been elected to the U.S. Senate. According to Obama, the owner wanted to sell the house together with a next door vacant lot which Obama apparently did not want. Instead, Rezko's wife bought the empty lot for full price. 625,000. And according to Obama, he bought the house paying $1.65 million, for $300,000 under the asking price, all on the same day. Obama says the price was dropped because the house had been on the market for some time.
In contrast, during another piece on Thompson, Ross looked into the criminal past of an advisor to the Republican candidate. He complained that "Thompson has been traveling in style." These types of verbal swipes were noticeably missing from the discussion of Obama and Rezko.
A transcript of the segment, which aired at 7:13am on January 10, follows:
DIANE SAWYER: And we're going to turn now to a question facing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama this morning. The Illinois senator has said that he regards it as one of his mistakes that he had a relationship on the purchase of his home with a political operative who is facing multiple counts of wire and mail fraud, among other charges. Well, this week, a judge vaulted the name of that operative into the news and ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross decided to look into it. Brian?
ABC GRAPHIC: Investigating Senator Obama: What's His Relationship With Indicted Man?
BRIAN ROSS: Good morning, Diane. Senator Obama says no lobbyist would be permitted to work in his White House. And as a state senator in Illinois, and now in Washington, he has pushed new ethics reforms laws. All of which makes his relationship with an accused Illinois political fixer and influence peddler all the more unusual. His name is Tony Rezko, known in Illinois politics as a back-room operator who did favors and raised campaign money for politicians and benefited in return. Rezko will go on trial next month to face charges growing out of a three-year long undercover FBI investigation involving bribes, kickbacks and extortion.
PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney): Today, we unsealed two indictments against Anton Tony Rezko, both involves efforts to illegally obtain millions of dollars.
ROSS: There was no mention of Senator Obama in Rezko's indictment. But as he sought to post bail, it emerged that Rezko had quietly played a role in Obama's purchase of a new home. Obama bought the house on Chicago's south side in June, 2005, after he had been elected to the U.S. Senate. According to Obama, the owner wanted to sell the house together with a next door vacant lot which Obama apparently did not want. Instead, Rezko's wife bought the empty lot for full price. 625,000. And according to Obama, he bought the house paying $1.65 million, for $300,000 under the asking price, all on the same day. Obama says the price was dropped because the house had been on the market for some time. But even civics groups that praise Obama's record on ethics were troubled by his involvement with a man of Rezko's reputation.
CYNTHIA CANARY (Illinois Campaign for Political Reform): Our only concern has been the timing and our wish that the senator had been a little bit more sensitive to the emerging dark cloud over Mr. Rezko's head.
ROSS: For his part, Obama has given a series of various explanations about the deal. First, he told the Chicago Tribune that he didn't recall what his conversations were with Rezko. Four days later, he told the Chicago Sun Times that he did recall telling Rezko about the property. Last May, as a candidate for president, Obama acknowledged to George Stephanopoulos that Rezko could become an issue, even though everything had been above board and legal.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: But, it raised the possibility that here was somebody who is a friend of mine who is doing me a favor. And I said, it was a bone-headed mistake.
ROSS: Senator Obama told one paper that he knew Rezko was under investigation at the time. But the Washington Post says Obama told them he had no idea of Rezko's brewing trouble. The first answer was more accurate. We found more than a hundred stories in the Illinois papers in the preceding five months, detailing allegations that Rezko was a corrupting influence in Illinois politics, including a Sunday editorial in the Chicago Tribune, ten days before the house purchase, focusing on Rezko and his behind the scenes connection to the Illinois governor. By our count, Rezko and people in his circle have given Obama more than $120,000 for his U.S. and state senate campaigns. A spokesman for Obama says the Senator has donated the 44,000 of that to charity since the indictments in Chicago. And the senator insists no favors were asked of him by Rezko and none was granted.