Obama Foundation is raising big bucks but hiding the identities of its mega-donors

The planned Obama presidential library "Presidential Center" that wants to grab priceless lakefront property from taxpayers for a vast campus that amounts to a cenotaph-like monument to the wonderfulness of the 44th president of the United States recently filed its required Form 990 for 2017 with the IRS.  It revealed three surprising facts.

One: The Foundation's fundraising skyrocketed from $13.175 million in 2016 to an eye-popping $232.6 million in 2017, 17.6 times as much.  Would it be too cynical of me to notice that this coincided with the elimination of the self-imposed limit of $1 million per contributor?  We do know that Obama and his wife actively courted donors once out of office with Clinton Global Initiative-like schmooze fests.

Screen grab from Obama Foundation video.

Two: The Obama Foundation decided to mask the identities of its mega-donors.  With Obama out of office in 2017, I presume that federal restrictions and disclosure requirements also went by the wayside.  Would it be too cynical of me to wonder if any foreign actors were among the mega-donors?  We are told, "Most contributions last year came from individuals, 94.9 percent or $220.7 million."

Three: The Foundation is lavishly compensating its top executives.  The Chicago Tribune reports: 

CEO David Simas earned $590,651. His salary is nearly twice what the CEO of the George W. Bush Foundation earned in 2016, the last year available. ... The executive director of the foundation, Robbin Cohen, earned $827,834 last year[.]

The Nonprofit Quarterly figuratively raised its eyebrows over this 2017 data, in an article entitled "The Obama Foundation's Financials Don't Match Its Rhetoric."  Danielle Holley writes:

The Obama Foundation released its 2017 financials early last week, providing an in-depth look at the organization's priorities and the extent to which they match – or in this case, don't match – the overarching narrative that the Foundation has been telling its Chicago South Side neighbors.

The Foundation has caused significant controversy over the past year, with Chicago's public sector and activist groups raising questions on whether the Presidential Center at Jackson Park, the Foundation's most significant project, will truly be of public benefit or simply a force for elitism and gentrification in Chicago's South Side.  Those flames were fanned again last week when the Foundation's Form 990 filing revealed skyrocketing executive compensation, with Executive Direct Robbin Cohen making an outsized $827,834 annually, and with a fundraising bonanza of unknown – and therefore to many suspicious – origin.

One should look at this compensation a few different ways.  Prime among them are:

·       Does it conform to the compensation of like organizations – in this case, presidential libraries?

·       What mission message does the compensation send to the community, which here includes a relatively low-income neighborhood concerned about gentrification?

compensation comparison among other presidential libraries was done five years ago and reported that some directors have earned more than $600,000.  That said, the 2016 Form 990 report from [the] George W. Bush Foundation shows the Obama Library CEO's compensation to be twice the highest there.

Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune editorial board seems a bit nervous over the possibility of the OPC becoming an issue in the mayoral election, now that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, has bowed out of the race.  

From the start, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been both pitch man and troubleshooter for the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side.

The mayor steered his old boss' project through Plan Commission and City Council approvals earlier this year.  He has touted the center's "tremendous economic, educational and cultural" opportunities.  This week, his administration is introducing legislation that sets up a 99-year agreement for the center's operation on Chicago Park District property.

The worry about the future of the lavishly funded project is palpable:

If we could have a moment with each mayoral candidate, we'd explain that this situation is delicate.  That the center is far from a slam dunk.  That the competing interests will try to lure candidates into their respective camps.

That use of the word "lure" is revealing.

And as the Trib editorialists note, there is a precedent for Chicago rejecting use of park land for monuments to gigantic egos:

Recall that Star Wars creator George Lucas envisioned a private museum on public lakefront parkland – and got derailed by a lawsuit challenging his vision.  Lucas abandoned the idea after the federal judge in the case said he did not believe it would benefit the public, but would instead "promote private and/or commercial interests."  The Obama Foundation says the public benefit here is obvious – and has agreed to transfer ownership of the center to the city once it's built.  Will that persuade a judge to toss the lawsuit?  Or will the case lurch along?  We'll see you in court – someday.

In the end, the Trib wants the project built:

So, in our hypothetical huddles with the candidates, we'd advise them not to shoot from the lip: Emanuel and his decisions are fair game; many of the candidates got into the race to defeat him.  But this proposal should be too crucial to the South Side to become a chew toy for candidates eager to build their anti-Rahm cred.  We'd remind the candidates that for South Siders and other Chicagoans who see the promise of an Obama Center, squandering this opportunity would be a sorry mistake.

Everyone's entitled to his opinions, of course.  As are we.

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