Just last week, Rep. Bobby Rush could have taken a bow. Two major health care groups announced they will establish a new trauma center on Chicago’s South Side, a cause for which Rush has fought for years.
This is the congressman at his best, going to bat for Chicago’s least powerful people, their interests never far from his heart.
But as Chicagoans were reminded again on Sunday, in a Watchdogs special report in the Sun-Times, there’s also a less admirable “Chicago way” to Rush’s style of politics. He appears to get too cozy with companies that rely on his political support. And he arguably fails to draw a clear ethical line between his private interests and the powers of his office.
For years, according to the Watchdogs report by the Better Government Association, the congressman’s niece, Angelique Chatman, worked for his church — he is an ordained minister — but was paid by a food concession company that had a big city contract at Midway Airport. The owner of the company, Timothy Rand, is a longtime Rush campaign contributor and friend.
Here’s why that arrangement looks hinky to us — and why it merits investigation by the House Ethics Committee:
- Rand’s company, Midway Airport Concessionaires, says Rush’s niece was not paid for working at the congressman’s church, but for working at Midway monitoring company employees and handling payroll records. But how can that be true? There is no record, according to the city, that Chatman even got the necessary Midway security badge.
- Rand says he can’t remember asking Rush for “assistance” in any matter involving his company. But last year, in a letter to House ethics investigators, Rush’s attorney, Scott Thomas, stated that Rand had once asked for Rush’s help on “a matter of local regulation of minority businesses.” Midway Airport Concessionaires is just such a business, originally landing its contract in 2000 under a Federal Aviation Administration “disadvantaged” classification meant to help companies owned by minorities or women. City Hall later allowed Rand to keep his contract at Midway though his worth grew to an estimated $20 million — far above the FAA’s tightened limit for a “disadvantaged” company.
Giving businesses run by women and minorities a leg up in government contracts is a defensible corrective to historic discrimination. But if there is even a hint that the process is not completely above board, it loses credibility. And if one minority contractor gains an inside advantage, a competing minority contractor gets iced out.
It is also crucial, at a time when City Hall is scraping for every last dollar to fill a budget hole, that revenues from Chicago’s airports be maximized. But when we learn that a vendor at Midway is picking up the salary of a congressman’s niece for her work at the congressman’s church — if that is indeed the case — forgive us for doubting whether the vendor was chosen entirely on the basis of what’s best for Midway and Chicago.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before from Rush. In December of 2013, most notably, the BGA reported in the Sun-Times that SBC, the telecommunications company that’s always lobbying Congress, had given a $1 million grant to a nonprofit technology center founded by Rush. The center accomplished little and Rush could not or would not show where most of the money had gone.
Bobby Rush has been in Congress for 22 years. He knows the rules. There is no Chicago exemption.
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