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Opinion: Valerie Jarrett story is not a case of ‘so what?’

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Valerie Jarrett is a powerhouse with a killer resume: Trained lawyer, prominent Chicago business and civic leader, valued mayoral appointee, corporate and volunteer board member, frequent mentor, Obama family friend, and senior presidential advisor since 2009.

That perch, as a trusted insider on the country’s biggest political stage, the White House, won her a cameo role on “The Good Wife.”

It also invited the scrutiny of watchdogs like the Better Government Association, whose mission is to shine a light on government leaders and hold them accountable.


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Recently, our award-winning Washington, D.C. reporters, Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo, did just that — breaking a story about Jarrett that appeared in the Sun-Times — and here’s an excerpt:

“Valerie Jarrett… personally benefited from an income tax ‘loophole’ that she has worked to close because Obama says it unfairly helps the ‘wealthy and well-connected.’

“The precise amount of the break Jarrett received under the controversial ‘carried interest tax loophole’ is not known, but the Better Government Association estimated it could have saved her $200,000 or more.

“The loophole was applied to Jarrett’s earnings from a 2013 Chicago real estate deal involving a $160 million luxury apartment high-rise – earnings that topped $1 million and came while she was working for the White House as a senior advisor to the president.”

The front-page story attracted a lot of attention, including “so what?” shrugs from several Jarrett colleagues because her actions don’t appear to break any laws or rules.

Maybe so, but consider that:

+ Beginning in 2010, Jarrett helped the Obama administration push for the elimination of a tax loophole that benefits wealthy developers and investors.

+ Five years later, the White House effort still hasn’t been successful.

+ Jarrett, however, has been very successful personally, profiting handsomely in 2013 on her `05 real estate investment, then cutting her 2013 tax liability in half by privately taking advantage of the same loophole she was fighting publicly.

So, on one hand she’s arguing against the “carried interest” loophole, as Obama did in a tough TV ad against 2012 Republican rival Mitt Romney.

On the other hand she’s profiting from the same tax break.

That’s the “what.”

Disingenuous? Unethical? Conflict of interest?  Legitimate questions watchdogs ask every day.

So how might Jarrett have handled the situation differently?

+ Recuse herself from the administration’s attempt to eliminate the loophole.

+ Not use it herself.

+ Disclose the details publicly after deciding to benefit from the tax break.

There’s no indication she did any of the above.

But Jarrett wouldn’t talk to us for the story, answer our detailed questions or even confirm she profited from the loophole.

We had to confirm it independently.

Not surprisingly, she wasn’t very talkative when the BGA revealed, in an earlier story, that she started collecting a pension of about $35,000 a year from her part-time role as CTA board chairman, after turning 50 in `06.

That’s on top of her $172,200 White House salary.

Some might say “so what?” to that disclosure.

Others might thank us for disclosing sweet pension deals and “double dipping” — collecting two government paychecks at the same time.

Either way, we’ll keep shining a light on government officials in positions of public trust—regardless of their power, prominence or defenders—for a simple reason:

Taxpayers and voters deserve to know this stuff.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

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