When the electricity at the South Side church run by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, was cut off in July 2010, a longtime benefactor who’d sought help from the federal government came to the rescue, records obtained by the Better Government Association and Chicago Sun-Times show.
The records show Oxford Media Group Inc., an Oak Brook company owned by multimillionaire businessman Joseph Stroud, paid the bill — which was well past due, totaling $17,900 owed to Commonwealth Edison.
Days later, the power was restored to Rush’s Beloved Community Christian Church, 6430 S. Harvard Ave., the records show.
Rush had personally been named in a ComEd lawsuit over the church’s previous unpaid bills.
The payment from Oxford was one of a series of donations that Stroud, his family foundation and business interests have made to Rush’s church and campaign chest over the past 15 years, records show.
During much of that time, Stroud was trying to break into the wireless phone industry dominated by Verizon and AT&T, and Rush was pushing for federal tax incentives that would give one of Stroud’s other companies a leg up as a minority-owned business.
“This is really problematic,” says retired U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who chaired the House Ethics Committee in the early 2000s. “Here’s a longtime benefactor of Rush — and he wanted something from the federal government — and he continues to provide something to Rush, if not directly, at least to his enterprise.”
Stroud wouldn’t comment. His Oxford Media operates WJYS, which airs religious programming.
One of a handful of African-American TV station owners in the United States, Stroud paid a firm $1.3 million to lobby Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, from 2001 through 2010, records show.
Rush, a senior member of the House telecommunications subcommittee, for years has pushed for legislation to increase minority ownership in telecom. He sponsored failed bills in 2003, 2005 and 2007 to create tax incentives to make it easier for minority-owned media companies to move into the lucrative wireless industry.
In late 2008, Stroud set his sights on wireless assets being divested by Verizon — including its subscriber base — in two dozen states to satisfy antitrust concerns and win federal approval of its purchase of rival Alltel.
Stroud wanted the FCC to encourage Verizon to sell at least some of those assets to a minority-owned company.
He failed in his bids to buy some of what Verizon was selling. AT&T was the successful bidder for most of the assets.
Stroud’s lawyers filed a protest with the FCC.
At a 2009 congressional hearing, Rush ripped the FCC commissioners over the “debacle” of failing to promote minority bidders’ purchase of Verizon assets.
In 2008, Stroud’s family foundation had donated $79,165 to Rush’s church, according to foundation tax returns. In 2009, it gave another $35,000.
Stroud’s company gave $50,000 to Rush’s failed mayoral race in 1999, he personally contributed $10,000 the next year to another Rush campaign fund, state records show.
Stroud’s FCC protest of the Verizon sale was pending in 2010 when the lights were turned off at Rush’s church and Stroud’s Oxford Media Group stepped up to pay the electric bill.
Rush, who founded Beloved and is its pastor, wouldn’t comment other than to say by email: “I feel that this is nothing but a ‘witch-hunt.’ As a member of Congress, I have assiduously attempted to conduct myself in accordance with the high standards of the House Ethics Committee.”
The ethics committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated Rush after the Sun-Times and the BGA reported in 2013 that he’d had to pay no rent for years for his campaign office and that another nonprofit started by Rush got $1 million from the charitable arm of what’s now AT&T for what turned out to be a failed effort to create a “technology center” in Englewood.
At the time, the telecom giant was seeking support for legislation in a House committee on which Rush was a key member.
Congressmen are allowed to solicit donations for their personal charities only with advance, written permission from the ethics committee. Rush told investigators for the Office of Congressional Ethics — whose transcripts also revealed the ComEd payment — he recalled speaking with someone from the committee but couldn’t produce any record of that. Ethics rules ban such donations if they personally benefit a congressman.
Rush’s lawyer, Scott Thomas, wrote the congressional ethics office last year that Rush receives no personal benefit from the church.
“His solicitations of funds for [Beloved] may have been to a company here or there that had some interests before Congress,” Thomas wrote, “but he always wore his pastor hat, not his Congressman hat during those encounters.”
Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo, who wrote this story, are investigators for the Better Government Association. The BGA’s Patrick Rehkamp contributed.