Photo: José M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)
One thing seems certain. President Obama’s close Chicago friend and basketball/golf buddy, Eric Whitaker, probably doesn’t have what it takes to run an agency. It’s one thing not to know one time what your underlings are up to; it’s another not to know repeatedly.
“Whitaker hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing.” is a sentence found in nearly every news story about scandals involving those around him, but, so far, not him.
Two years ago I emailed my editor to suggest a post on what appeared to be lapses in the Chicago-born physician’s time as an administrator—mostly during his tenure as Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, a position he held from 2003 to 2007. My then-editor replied, “Yes, absolutely.” The story fell through the lines on my “pending,” list, but it remained there, and I returned to my notes in the wake of the indictment last week of Whitaker’s former top aide.
Here’s a rundown of what one could construe as Whitaker’s blind spots—oldest first, as in the two that prompted my email to my former editor.
On September 19, 2011, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote about assorted scandals that, in effect, took funds and programs out of the hands of low-income people who desperately needed them. Crediting Sun-Times investigative reporters Chris Fusco and Dave McKinney, Mitchell described federal probes of “a range of `faith-based initiatives’ and health-outreach programs that were overseen by Dr. Eric Whitaker, President Barack Obama’s vacation buddy. Whitaker is not accused of any wrongdoing.”
Included in that group was a former program director of the Chicago chapter of the National Black Nurses Association whose alleged crimes Mitchell described as “diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds … Prosecutors allege that of the $1 million in grants [she] received under Whitaker and other state-agency directors, she siphoned off $500,000 for her personal use.”
The next day, the Sun-Times’ Fusco and McKinney wrote about an AIDS-awareness program, the nonprofit Working for Togetherness—under the control of the Illinois Department of Public Health then headed by Whitaker—aimed at reaching people in “poor African-American neighborhoods.” In 2004, Fusco and McKinney wrote, “Whitaker’s department and the Illinois Department of Human Services gave Working for Togetherness $150,000 to raise awareness about AIDS in African-American communities by driving around and providing HIV test kits and information.” The attention-grabbing vehicle was a used $45,196 red, fully loaded, and “blinged” Hummer—featuring “game consoles, custom sound, television, DVD, public address, custom paints and tire rims"—bought, at least partly, with state funds.
A FOIA request that produced emails from Whitaker’s inbox included this one from his then chief of staff, Quinshaunta Golden: “Shame on whoever thought the [Working for Togetherness leader] would do something like this. What will be said now that [the staffer and his wife] are using their own personal vehicle to do outreach?”
Turns out that the now deceased Working for Togetherness leader, according to the reporters, “…used state grant money to buy the [Hummer].” Whitaker “who hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing,” ordered that half the grant money used to buy the Hummer be repaid by the now defunct Working for Togetherness.
If the name Quinshaunta Golden sounds familiar, it should. Golden was indicted earlier this month on seven federal counts including bribery, theft, witness tampering, mail fraud and obstruction of justice for allegedly “conspiring with state grant recipients to divert federal money [as much as $433,000] into her own pockets and then trying to cover it up,” according to Chicago Tribune reporters Ray Long and Hal Dardick.
Eric Whitaker left the Illinois Department of Public Health in late 2007 to work with Michelle Obama at the University of Chicago Medical Center. (She was vice president of community and external relations; he carried the titles associate dean and executive vice president, strategic affiliations, in charge of the Urban Health Initiative aimed at directing low income residents away from UC Medical Center’s emergency room and into neighborhood clinics.) Golden joined Whitaker at the U of C Medical Center in early 2008. According to Fusco and McKinney, money from the alleged “kickback scheme began flowing to Golden in July 2007, when Whitaker headed the health department and Golden was his chief of staff. It allegedly kept flowing until October 2008. By that time, Golden and Whitaker had left state government to work together at the University of Chicago Medical Center." (Whitaker left the UC Medical Center job last March.)
Writing about the same case, Sun-Times reporters Fusco and McKinney note that “There was no indication in the indictment that Whitaker knew of the wrongdoing,” and quote a statement from Whitaker, "I had no firsthand knowledge of the activities outlined in this indictment and was not involved in any way. As requested by the U.S. attorney, I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters."
Later in the story, the reporters note, “[U.S. Attorney James] Lewis answered vaguely when asked if there is any evidence that Whitaker knew about Golden’s alleged wrongdoing. `There’s nothing in this material you’re being provided with today that indicates that,’ he said. Pressed on whether that answer meant Whitaker did not know about it, Lewis grinned and said, `I think I just answered that.’”
No one is suggesting that Barack Obama had any knowledge of the alleged offenses, but, as reported by the Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, while a state senator in 2003, Obama did recommend to now incarcerated Gov. Blagojevich—Obama’s go-between was none other than the also incarcerated Tony Rezko—that Blago appoint Whitaker to the job as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The Department of Public Health under Whitaker, Sweet adds, “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.”
Eric Whitaker met Barack Obama when both were graduate students at Harvard—Obama at the law school; Whitaker, studying for his master’s in public health. The friendship, which started on the basketball court, endured. Whitaker was one of 11 who celebrated the President’s 52nd birthday last week with a golf game at Andrews Air Force Base followed by celebrations at Camp David. Whitaker and his wife, Cheryl—also a physician who practiced, in the late ‘90s at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she became a close friend and gym workout buddy of Michelle Obama—often accompany the Obamas on vacations in Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii.
I interviewed Cheryl Whitaker in November 2008 while writing a profile of Michelle. She told me about their more than decade-long friendship, and about traveling with Michelle during the 2008 primary and general election to such battleground states as Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada.
Finally, Ed Klein, magazine editor (Newsweek, New York Times Magazine) turned biographer, writes in The Amateur, his harshly negative book about President Obama published in the spring of 2012, that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, told Klein on tape that, during the 2008 campaign, a close friend of Obama’s—who Klein later identified him as Eric Whitaker—offered him via email $150,000 if the controversial Obama family pastor would stop preaching and giving interviews about his relationship with candidate Obama. According to Klein, Wright refused the offer.
Whitaker denied the allegation, telling ABC News via email, “'I have received your message asking whether I’d offered any sort of a bribe during the 2008 campaign. The answer is no. Thank you for giving me the chance to respond.’ He didn’t respond to a follow-up question. Rev. Wright did not respond to numerous requests for comment.”