Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Today's News, Eight Months Ago

Before I got sidetracked with the many moods and nicknames of Jim Oberstar, this was the *important* story I was researching. From the USA Today, a story on the ethically questionable fringe benefits received by members of Congress from companies lobbying them and their committees. It includes this mention of Mr. Aviation:
Minnesota, transportation groups are among the donors to a law school professorship named for Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House transportation committee. Overall, about 20 transportation companies and industry groups are helping to underwrite the James L. Oberstar Professorship of Law and Public Policy, according to a release by the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
A very suspicious set of circumstances. No less suspicious than when I pointed it out back on October of 2008. I'm not looking for any credit of course, just happy to see the mainstream media finally catching up to the cutting edge journalism taking place at Fraters Libertas. In that post, the next steps in the investigation were outlined:

I cannot locate any listing of the specific corporations funding the Oberstar professorship. Free advice to any political reporters out there doing this job for a living. 1) Acquire that list. 2) Check for earmarks or any special treatment for those corporations coming out of Oberstar's committee in the recent past. 3) If none, wait for the upcoming session and see if any of those corporations have business in front of Oberstar's committee or receive any earmarks or special treatment. 4) Report findings. 5) Write speech for Pulitzer ceremony.
Whaddya know, USA Today has attempted step 1:

Law school spokesman Chato Hazelbaker said more than $475,000 had been raised but would not release a donor list.
Stonewalling at St. Thomas. Strange, I wonder what they have to hide? Whatever it is, it looks like my decision to do absolutely nothing to chase down the story myself was vindicated again!

Some information was uncovered by USA Today in reviewing lobbyist disclosure reports:
The reports show several transportation companies donated last year. Among them: Oldcastle Materials, which makes gravel and concrete and builds roads and bridges, gave $10,000 to the law school in October. Oberstar "is a long-serving member of Congress and has advanced public policy in areas such as the economy, transportation and public works," company spokeswoman Joyce Watson says. "It was a good match for us."
I bet it was. I'm sure donating $10K for a scholarship in the name of a committee chairman the company has no business with would not be so readily approved by accounting. (Sorry, Chairman of the House Animal Husbandry Subcommittee -- aka, "Mr. Horse Inseminator" -- you'll have to keep looking.)

How does the Voice of Bicyclists in the Nation respond to this appearance of impropriety? His staff has a number of excuses for your review, feel free to choose any you like:

John Schadl, Oberstar's spokesman, says the fundraising has been approved by the House ethics committee and has not influenced his policy actions. Oberstar has not solicited contributions, Schadl says.

The congressman did attend a reception organized by the university last October at the Canadian Embassy in Washington where the scholarship was announced, Schadl says. "There were obviously donors there," Schadl says, "but
he really didn't know who they were."

It's the old "Wait a minute, you're telling me the lobbyists in attendance at a party thrown to announce the underwriting of my named scholarship might have given money to underwrite my named scholarship! I didn't see that coming!" excuse.

That sounds plausible. That is, If you've been regularly riding your bicycle into cement walls without wearing a helmet and/or you're a shameless career politician who believes he can get away with virtually anything and his constituency will never, ever vote him out of office.

Incidentally, the USA Today article led off with some anecdotes about another common ethics dodge in Congress, getting lobbyists to help pay for official portraits to be created and to be hung in government offices. Oberstar was not featured in this part of the article. But that doesn't necessarily mean Oberstar didn't get in on this narcissistic bandwagon.

This masterpiece just happens to hang in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Hearing Room.

Who paid for it? Who knows? I can find no mention of the funding source. The revered journalists at Minnpost covered the portrait unveiling in a trio of celebratory stories, but never got around to even broaching the subject of who footed the bill for this powerful DFL stalwart. (And the fact that Democrats were performing like trained seals at a recent Minnpost fundraiser in order to keep them in business? If you asked Jim Oberstar - mere coincidence!)

This community newspaper link has more information on the portrait, but leaves the funding source hazy. The best we get is:

A portrait painter whose work was commissioned by Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar will be teaching portraiture and figure drawing courses starting this week at River Ridge Arts in Burnsville.
Does "commissioned" mean paid for or just that he ordered it? Beats me. But the context of the USA today article on this practice (in this case, for Rep. Jerry Lewis) does not give me assurance:

Nearly three-quarters of the money raised for the portrait came from special-interest groups with business before Congress, federal records show.

Was Oberstar's set-up of a similar nature? Now that I've got the gears going, maybe we'll hear more facts from a professional reporter in the next 6 - 8 months.

We conclude with this final quote from Jim Oberstar, regarding his own portrait and the artist who created it:
She really finds the nature of the character and the meaning of the person and she lets that person speak in the portrait," said Oberstar. "She reminds me of Michelangelo when he completed the sculpture of Moses and struck it with his chisel and said, 'speak!'"
Another nickname born, he's the Moses of Congressional portraits. If he doesn't say so himself.

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