Obama’s pal Eric Whitaker, his Tony Rezko tie

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With the prospects of Barack Obama winning the White House pretty good, the Sun-Times Watchdog team took a look in the Tuesday paper about a potential Obama administration appointee, pal Eric Whitaker.

By the Sun-Times Watchdog team

Dr. Eric Whitaker and Sen. Barack Obama go way back.

Their friendship began when they were graduate students at Harvard University. Now, Whitaker is one of Obama’s closest advisers.

Whitaker, 43, of Chicago, often travels with the presidential hopeful on the campaign trail and has vacationed with him in Hawaii. There’s talk Whitaker could be in line for a federal appointment if Obama becomes president.

Five years ago, Obama, then an Illinois state senator, gave a “glowing” reference for Whitaker to Tony Rezko, the now-convicted political fixer who helped Gov. Blagojevich find people to run state agencies. Blagojevich hired Whitaker to be the state’s public health director.

Obama has said that’s the only time he can recall talking to Rezko — who was a major campaign fund-raiser for him and for Blagojevich — about getting anyone a state job.

“Somebody who I do remember talking directly to Tony about was Dr. Eric Whitaker,” Obama told the Sun-Times in March. “He and I played basketball together when he was getting his master’s in public health at Harvard, while I was in law school there. He had expressed an interest in that job. I did contact Tony, or Tony contacted me, and I gave him a glowing recommendation because I thought he was outstanding.”

Whitaker had been a rising star at Cook County’s Stroger Hospital, known for a program he created that went to barbershops to educate black men on preventive care.

“I did not seek any position and was stunned when I was asked to interview for the IDPH director position,” Whitaker, who declined an interview request, said in a written response to questions. “My first encounter with Tony Rezko was when he called and told me to come in for an interview approximately one week after I had already been interviewed” by three other Blagojevich advisers.

As state health chief, Whitaker spent millions on programs that used churches to educate minorities about AIDS, breast cancer and preparing for public health emergencies, a program hailed nationwide.

Whitaker’s agency also got caught up in scandal. He oversaw the budget of the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, which approves medical construction projects. Rezko and his associates controlled that board, which they used to solicit kickbacks and payoffs, according to testimony at Rezko’s trial.

Rezko was convicted. Whitaker, who said he wasn’t involved in the board’s day-to-day operations, was never accused of any wrongdoing.

“During my time as director of IDPH, I received four or five calls from Tony Rezko seeking my support for and attendance at the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital charity event,” Whitaker said. “After my employment interview, I never had a conversation with Mr. Rezko about the” health department or the planning board.

Whitaker left the state payroll a year ago and joined Obama’s wife Michelle as a high-ranking executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center. When he was hired, U. of C. was seeking permission to expand its children’s hospital — one of five expansions the university sought from the state while Whitaker was health director. All were approved by the planning board. Whitaker and the U. of C. said he had nothing to do with those approvals.

“Whether and to what extent Dr. Whitaker had anything to do with the [approval] process while at IDPH was and is totally irrelevant to his hiring by or his work at the Medical Center,” wrote Susan S. Sher, a medical center attorney.

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