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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama Engulfed by Pay to Play?

Politics and media are an animal beyond any one's control. The concept of pay to play has been around for a long time. In fact, corruption itself is not new. Both have managed to stay well below the surface and out of the public's consciousness for much of the last decade. Then the Rod Blagojevich scandal exploded and it put both under the microscope. It seemed the only major media person concerned with Barack Obama's ties to the political machine in Illinois prior to the scandal was John Kass. Now, phrases like pay to play and the Chicago Way are becoming a part of the mainstream lexicon of American media. As they do, make no mistake they will become a serious threat to the Presidency of Barack Obama.

Most of the media has totally misanalyzed the threat of the Blagojevich scandal to Obama's Presidency. The threat is not from the scandal surrounding the selling of the Senate seat itself. Yet, the media continues to miss how vulnerable Obama is to it. So far, Obama has no link to any corruption involving Blagojevich selling the Senate seat, and I don't expect that he will. I believe that there are a lot of unanswered questions regarding the involvement of his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, but that is only the beginning of Obama's vulnerability.

The reality is that what Blagojevich did is standard operating procedure in Illinois. Blagojevich's major crime is the brazen manner in which he approached. That doesn't change the fact that most of Obama's political allies in Illinois are crooked. That goes for the likes of political godfather Emil Jones, his patriarch Richard M. Daley, and his political cohort Todd Stroger. As this scandal unfolds, more attention will be paid to their crooked ways. For folks like Daley, Stroger, and Jones, pay to play is an everyday way of doing business. While Obama has been able to maintain some modicum of plausible deniability with this particular scandal, he will have a much harder time saying that he didn't know that his own political godfather Emil Jones was crooked. Jones was one of Blagojevich's staunchest allies. In fact, the two of them single handedly blocked a tough anti pay to play bill for months.

There are four things I am certain of. First, this scandal will not go away from the front pages anytime soon. Second, Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in charge, is out for every corrupt Illinois politician's blood. Third, if his back is against the wall, Blagojevich willl rat on everyone if it ultimately benefits him. Fourth, Blagojevich knows where every body is buried. This means that this scandal will unfold. It will engulf many more folks than Blagojevich himself, and at some point, Blagojevich will sing like a canary and most of the machine will be implicated. Many of them will be Obama's close confidantes and colleagues. Whatever involvement in the actual crimes Obama will have, it will not look good for him when one former friend, colleague, and ally is hauled off to jail.

Then, it appears that Obama will soon be dealing with another pay to play scandal. His Commerce Secretary, Bill Richardson, is also involved in his own pay to play investigation.

A federal grand jury is investigating how a company that advised Jefferson County, Alabama, on bond deals that threaten to cause the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, did similar work in New Mexico after making contributions to Governor Bill Richardson’s political action committees.

The grand jury in Albuquerque is looking into Beverly Hills, California-based CDR Financial Products Inc., which received almost $1.5 million in fees from the New Mexico Finance Authority in 2004 after donating $100,000 to Richardson’s efforts to register Hispanic and American Indian voters and pay for expenses at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, people familiar with the matter said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation asked current and former officials from the state agency if any staff members in the governor’s office influenced CDR’s hiring, said the people, who declined to be identified because the proceedings are secret. Richardson, who is President-elect Barack Obama’s designate for Commerce Secretary, has a staff of at least 30 people.

Now, so far, this particular scandal has received fairly scant attention. That's partially because we know little. Of course, it goes without saying that Richardson hasn't even been accused of anything yet. This scandal has the potential of really exploding on Obama. First, he will already be dealing with a plethora of questions regarding pay to play in Illinois. Second, this scandal will reach right into his cabinet. Third, and most importantly, if true, how poorly was he vetted? If this is true, then it was nothing short of political malpractice for Obama to miss it when choosing him. He did choose him though. As such, as we find out more, this can turn from embarrassing to a massive political liability. The worst thing that can happen is for major news to break after he has been confirmed. The easiest way for Obama to get rid of this problem is to get rid of Richardson himself. If, on the other hand, Richardson winds up in the cabinet only to have to scandal open up afterwards, that would be a political liability no new administration could contend with.

Finally, the revelations of Bill Clinton's library donors has the potential to also be caught up in this web of scandals. The amount of money that has been given to the Clinton library from outside sources is staggering, and it raises the real question of what these folks wanted in return. Will foreigners now have access to the Secretary of State, influence, and will they shape policy? Of course, we don't actually know any of this, but sometimes perception is reality. In this case, if Obama is dealing with two other separate pay to play scandals, it won't be long for some folks to attach the same stigma to the donors and ask questions that have no answers. If this turns into a pay to play angle along with the other two, Obama's term will be harmed nearly beyond repair. It will mean he will be looking at the perception of three separate scandals all involving the worst kind of politics, and it will all happen before he even has a chance to set policy. His opponents will cast the skepticism of corruption on each piece of legislation.

How easy will it be to turn the stimulus into a quid pro quo? After all, the funds will wind up in the hands of contractors, developers, and all sorts of other people that have power and access. Real or perceived, money going from the government into the hands of those with power and influence can easily be framed as pay to play. Especially when the administration is embroiled in multiple pay to play scandals already. Any bill or decision that appears to favor the unions will be viewed as pay back for their massive campaign contributions. Obama's domestic policy could easily be boiled down to the concept of pay to play. The scandals are being to engulf him and soon he may just be trapped in a vicious media cycle of pay to play.

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