Obama tipped off about search of Annenberg Records

As most observers predicted at the time, records from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge where Barack Obama served as President of the Board and terrorist William Ayers as head of the action arm of the organization were offered for redaction, the result of a tip from the University of Illinois to a colleague of Obama campaign:

The President of the University of Illinois, B. Joseph White, and the University Counsel of the University of Illinois, Thomas Bearrows, contacted Kenneth C. Rolling, the former Executive Director of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) and a professional colleague of Barack Obama for many years, prior to the release of CAC records to the public late last month and offered Rolling an opportunity to recommend to the University which records of the CAC held at the University's Chicago campus (UIC) should be restricted from public access.  
In response to Rollings' detailed request to prevent public access to certain CAC records Bearrows replied "as promised, we will carefully consider the concerns that you identify..."

The request is described in documents released by the University last week pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by a third year law student in Chicago. The law student who initiated the FOIA request provided Global Labor with the documents.

An email sent by Rolling to Mr. Bearrows, states:

“I’m writing to follow up on part of the discussion held yesterday re: my concern for protecting confidential information that may be in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge archive/files located at the library at the UIC. (The conversation included President White, Tom Hardy [Hardy is the University's Executive Director for University Relations], you and myself.)…I’m following up on the offer from Pres. White and you made during our discussion yesterday, for me to recommend pieces of information in the files that should be considered confidential and restricted for access by the public.”

Clearly, Rolling was being invited to scrub any records he felt were "confidential" -- an open ended definition of which Rolling could be expected to take advantage. We do not know what information, if any, was scrubbed.

As Steve Diamond reports on his blog in this extraordinarily long and detailed post, this sort of thing is highly unusual:

It is, however, highly unusual to allow someone who once worked for a donor to change the terms of the gift such that the records originally deposited with the University for public review are no longer available. That amounts to a revocation of the original gift and re-gifting the now restricted set of documents to the University. However, for such an action to be valid the individual engaging in the revocation would need both the authority of the donor organization and the donee University. That would not have been possible with respect to the CAC because it had ceased operations and dissolved.

One wonders why the U of I felt it necessary to contact an Obama associate in the first place and then change the terms of the gift. If there is an innocent explanation, the University should give it. But it is very hard to see how this is anything except partisans at both the U of I and the Obama campaign working together to scrub records that may have had extremely damaging information about the relationship between Obama and William Ayers.

Update: In an email forwarded to us, Joe White, the president of the University of Illinois writes:

"It’s not true.  No one had an opportunity to access the records before they were made public."

Hat Tip: Ed Lasky

Update 9/9/08:

The Chicago Tribune covers the controversy here.  

Rolling subsequently asked the university not to release several of the charity's files, including records outlining its search for an executive director. In an Aug. 23 e-mail, Rolling said he was concerned about the "confidential nature of some documents" in the grant files.

But university officials said that despite the request by Rolling, none of the documents were withheld when the university reopened the documents to public inspection Aug. 26.

"Absolutely, unequivocally not," said UIC lawyer Thomas Bearrows when asked whether the university had bowed to any of Rolling's requests. [....]

A spokesman for the Obama campaign said Monday that it had never had any discussions with university officials about the Annenberg collection.