Founding Brothers

Published September 24, 2008

National Review Online

New evidence strongly suggests that Barack Obama has been less than forthcoming about the role that unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers may have played in choosing him to lead the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, I have obtained an e-mail message from former CAC executive director, Ken Rolling, to Warren Chapman and Anne Hallett, two of CAC's three co-founders. Bill Ayers was the third founder. In Rolling's message, sent the morning after I first requested access to CAC records housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), he admits to avoiding a reporter's inquiries about who picked Obama to head CAC. Rolling also appears to prime Chapman and Hallett to avoid telling the press the whole story of how Obama was chosen, and provides them with an apparently incomplete story to use instead. Although it's too early to draw definitive conclusions from this evidence, it does raise serious questions about Barack Obama's own account of the process by which he was chosen as CAC board chair.

My FOIA request to UIC yielded several documents, most of which had already been provided to University of Chicago law student Jason Wilcox through an earlier FOIA request. The documents produced by the Wilcox request have been described and discussed in detail by Steve Diamond at his “Global Labor and Politics” blog.

Important new information has also been added by a story in the Chicago Tribune.

Based on all of this material, let's reconstruct what happened behind the scenes, beginning on August 11, 2008, the day I first contacted UIC requesting access to the CAC archives.

First Contact
In “Chicago Annenberg Challenge Shutdown?” I tell the story of how UIC's Richard J. Daley Library reversed its initial decision to allow me access to the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The Chicago Tribune has since revealed that I was barred from the collection following an August 11 call to UIC from former CAC executive director, Ken Rolling. In the Tribune story, Rolling appears to claim that contact with UIC came at his own initiative. Steve Diamond questioned Tribune reporters further on this issue, and was told that Rolling claimed to have unilaterally contacted UIC library on August 11, after seeing reports about CAC on the Internet at about that time.

Yet August 11 happens to be the day I first contacted UIC's Daley Library requesting to see the CAC archive. How likely is it that Rolling called UIC requesting that the documents be restricted on the same day, purely by coincidence? It seems far more likely that some as-yet-unidentified person at UIC tipped Rolling off to my request, prompting his demand that the records be embargoed.

In any case, we know that on August 11, the same day I asked to see the CAC records, Rolling quietly called on the library to close them to the public. Thus, on August 13, I was told by Special Collections head, Ann Weller: “The donor of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Records has alerted us to the fact that we do not have a signed deed of gift. We do not have the legal right to make the material available. The donor is working with us to resolve this issue and we hope to be able to provide access within the next few weeks.” We know from several documents released by UIC that Rolling presented himself as the “donor” of the CAC records.

It therefore appears that as soon as I contacted UIC asking to see the CAC archive, Rolling moved to block my access, claiming “donor” status, and providing UIC with a legal reason to close the records. Steve Diamond makes a powerful case that none of Rolling's arguments hold legal water. With CAC defunct since early 2002, CAC as an institution and Rolling as its former head had no standing to assert themselves. It appears from at least one of Rolling's e-mail messages that he also tried to assert himself, individually, as “the donor,” a status that he never held. Moreover, no deed of gift is needed to transfer ownership of the records. Physical transfer suffices. If Diamond is right, then in supplying UIC Library with a bogus legal argument about the need for a signed deed of gift, Rolling was not only moving to bar me from the records, he was also laying the groundwork for removing the documents from the library and taking them into his own possession. This is confirmed by an August 19 radio interview in which a UIC spokesman said that if a signed agreement could not be obtained, “we'll simply return the materials to the owner.”

So on August 11, the same day I first contacted UIC, Rolling (perhaps after being tipped off by an as-yet-unknown UIC contact) offered the university a highly questionable set of legal claims, which not only served to block my access to the CAC records but also began to build a case for a complete withdrawal of the records from university control. And now, as a result of my recent FOIA request, we know that on August 12, Rolling made a second important move.

Avoiding a Question
At 9:07 A.M. on the day after I first contacted UIC library in search of the CAC records, Rolling e-mailed Warren Chapman and Anne Hallett, who, along with Bill Ayers, founded CAC. (Warren Chapman is now UIC vice chancellor for external affairs, and this UIC connection explains how my FOIA request was able to capture Rolling's e-mail.) I present the text of Rolling's message, headed, “New York Times story: CAC,” in its entirety here:

Anne and Warren:

I gave your contact info to Sam Dillon, Education Reporter for the NYTimes who is doing a story on McCain vs. Obama's education platform (McCain has a one-pager; Obama has a 17 page, 10-point platform). Dillon was sent to me from the Obama campaign to discuss Barack's role in the Annenberg Challenge. – I have spent at least 4 hours in interviews with Sam Dillon who is trying to understand everything he can about the Challenge to see where Barack's experience with it influenced his education reform views or where Barack had influence on education policy and/or practice during those years. Sam is pretty thorough in his questions and one question or response leads to many other things he is interested in learning about the Challenge. – The Challenge is just one phase of Barack's ‘education interests' that Dillon is exploring. He's also trying to learn about Barack's community organizing days and how education reform was part of them.

Sam would like to talk with either or both of your to understand how the “ad hoc group” you two and Bill Ayers lead [sic], aarived [sic] at the structure of the founding board and the Collaborative. He is trying to understand how Barack got “picked” for the CAC board, by whom, why, etc. – I have avoided that question head-on though I believe Barack was Debbie Leff's/Joyce nomination.

I think the article will b
e friendly and is truly looking to see the influences on or by Barack re: education/school reform in Chicago, ete. [sic]

Let me know if you talk to Dillon?

All the best.


While I am not offering definitive conclusions about this letter here, I'll present what I think is the most plausible reading. Readers can decide for themselves whether I'm right.

The day after he blocked my access to the CAC records, Rolling wrote an early morning letter to Ayers's CAC co-founders, directing them to a New York Times reporter he believed to be friendly. Rolling's message included what appear to be subtle instructions on how to handle the matter of Obama's choice to be head of CAC. This suggests that Rolling was trying to preemptively shape the public story of Obama, Ayers, and CAC, before I or others could investigate the issue.

The most interesting part of the letter is Rolling's admission that in the face of a reporter's interest in the question of who picked Obama to head the CAC board, he (Rolling) “avoided that question head-on.” Why should Rolling avoid the question of who chose Obama for the CAC board, especially with a reporter he deems friendly? Could Rolling have something to hide? And by making the point, is Rolling subtly suggesting to Chapman and Hallett that they, too, should avoid the question of who picked Obama to head CAC?

Right after Rolling confessed to avoiding the issue of who chose Obama for the CAC board, he said, “I believe Barack was Debbie Leff's/Joyce nomination.” That is what the Obama campaign has said in response to my own inquiries. But if Joyce Foundation president Deborah Leff was responsible for elevating Obama to the chairmanship of CAC, why “avoid the question head-on?” Why not just tell the reporter about Leff? Rolling's behavior strongly suggests that, whatever Leff's role in Obama's hiring, it is far from the whole story. Rolling appears to be supplying Chapman and Hallett with the Leff answer as the best available option if the question of Obama's appointment becomes unavoidable. But Rolling's underlying message seems to be to avoid the issue of who chose Obama altogether, if possible.

Once you see that Rolling is avoiding the issue of who appointed Obama as CAC head, the rest of the letter reads like a anxious warning. When Rolling says that, “Sam is pretty thorough in his questions and one question or response leads to many other things,” he appears to be warning Chapman and Hallett about the can of worms they could be getting into when questioned by this reporter, if they're not careful. In context, Rolling's request to be informed if Chapman or Hallett do talk to the reporter comes off as eagerness to control a dangerous story, and perhaps to get information about what's happening to the Obama campaign. (Recall that the Obama campaign first sent the New York Times reporter to Rolling.)

Questions to Press
While Rolling's letter raises more questions than answers, it seems clear that we're not being told the whole truth about who chose Obama to lead the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. In particular, the Obama campaign's claim that Deborah Leff and Patricia Graham may have put forward Obama's nomination can no longer be taken as the last word on the subject. The Rolling letter strongly suggests that Obama and his allies are not being fully forthcoming on this issue, quite possibly in an attempt to disguise the fact the Bill Ayers had a substantial role in elevating Barack Obama to the chairmanship of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. More generally, in the immediate wake of my attempt to gain access to the CAC records, Rolling appears to have been maneuvering, both to block my access, and to make sure that the full story of who chose Obama as CAC head would not come out.

Given the Rolling letter, here are some questions that need to be asked:

1. Why did Ken Rolling contact UIC on August 11, 2008? Was he tipped off to my inquiry on the same day by someone at UIC? If so, who?

2. Was Ken Rolling in touch with anyone in the Obama campaign on August 11, or shortly thereafter. Has Rolling been in touch with Bill Ayers since August 11? Has the Obama campaign been in touch with any of the CAC founders, Chapman, Hallett, or Ayers, since August 11? In other words, has the Obama campaign been working through Rolling or the other CAC founders, including Ayers, to help manage this story?

3. What is the full story of Obama's elevation to the chairmanship of CAC, and what role did Bill Ayers play in the choice of Obama?

4. Did Obama and Ayers know one another prior to their time at CAC?

The Obama campaign's initial response to this issue notwithstanding, the question of how a young and inexperienced lawyer like Obama was chosen to head a foundation created by Bill Ayers in 1995 is still very much open. Ken Rolling, Warren Chapman, Anne Hallett, and indeed, Barack Obama and Bill Ayers must now provide some answers.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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