The Utility Man
At first, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) was skeptical of the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC, saying the deal was not sweet enough for minority businesses.
But after Comcast upped its diversity commitment in response to a July 2010 congressional hearing Rush convened in Chicago – promising a $20 million venture capital fund for minority entrepreneurs, among other things – he was satisfied.
In October 2010, Rush wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, a key regulatory agency, saying that he now supported the union of Comcast, a cable and Internet provider, and NBC, one of the big three television networks.
When signing off on such deals, the FCC takes into account the opinions of a variety of stakeholders – including members of Congress. Rush's voice was important because he is an influential member of a congressional subcommittee that handles legislation relating to the telecommunications industry.
Eleven months later, Comcast conducted another financial transaction, though out of the limelight: The company's charitable arm donated $50,000 to a non-profit founded by Rush, the Better Government Association found.
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said there was no quid pro quo and the money "was in no way linked or related to any decision by Rep. Rush."
However, Rush often took positions in Congress that were aligned with his corporate benefactors.
A months-long BGA review found Comcast wasn't alone in its generosity: Since 2001, roughly $1.7 million was donated to Rush's pet charities by businesses counting on favorable actions by him in Congress, according to interviews, and public records examined by the BGA.
While not illegal, this raises questions about whether corporate interests are trying to end-run rules that limit giving to political campaign funds – there are no restrictions when giving to charity – as they try to influence Rush on legislative and other matters.
In an interview he granted to the BGA weeks before taking leave from Congress to tend to what his office described as a medical problem with his wife, Rush brushed off questions about the propriety of his charities taking donations from those seeking his support in the U.S. House.
When members of Congress face ethical dilemmas, they sometimes seek counsel from the House Ethics Committee. But Rush said that wasn't necessary in the more-recent donations because he didn't personally benefit from the donations.
"I have never accepted not one red cent . . . from anybody, so there was no reason for me to ask the House Ethics Committee 'Can I accept and receive any money?'" Rush said.
An earlier donation (and the biggest) was for $1 million. The money came from the charitable arm of SBC, now AT&T, and went to the Rebirth of Englewood Community Development Corp., founded by Rush in 2000. The donation was supposed to build a "technology center" in Englewood, but the facility never materialized. The donation came as SBC sought Rush's support on deregulation.
Overall, SBC/AT&T has given $1.5 million to Rush-linked nonprofits since 2001. Commonwealth Edison, an energy company commonly called ComEd that’s regulated by another congressional subcommittee on which Rush is a senior member, donated nearly $200,000. Comcast gave the one contribution of $50,000.
Donations to a congressman's pet charities are legal, but since 2008 they must be disclosed if the donor also lobbies federal officials. Unlike contributions to federal campaigns, charitable donations have no dollar limits and get scant media coverage.
Rush founded three nonprofits that have accepted donations from the utility and telecommunications sectors that he has authority over in Congress. Aside from Rebirth, they are Beloved Community Christian Church and its social-service arm, Beloved Community Family Services. A fourth group, the Beloved Community Family Wellness Center, is described as a special "mission" of Rush's church, but he is not listed on paperwork as a corporate officer. It accepted a single donation from SBC/AT&T, according to the telecom giant's charitable disclosure forms.
"A politician has a number of pockets into which a special interest can make donations," said Bill Allison, an expert in money and politics at the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government. In the case of Rush, "He's got a whole lot of wide open pockets in addition to his campaign committee."
The problem with all this, according to Allison: "One of the ways a special interest can try to get through to a congressman is to donate to his pet causes."
Rush has attracted more charitable corporate giving than any other Illinois congressman, by a large margin, according to a Sunlight Foundation study of expenditures from 2009 to 2011.
Who’s Donating To Charities Affiliated With U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush
TOTAL DONATIONS $1,737,500
NOTE: AT&T also spent more than $303,000 on receptions honoring Rush from 2008-2011, though that money did not go to his charities.
Sources: Publicly available disclosure reports required of charitable organizations, interviews, and records from state and Cook County governments.
While about $1.7 million in donations has gone to Rush's charities since 2001, another $300,000 was spent by SBC/AT&T on special "receptions" in Rush's honor, according to publicly available disclosure reports.
Rush also gets campaign donations from the employees and political-action committees of ComEd and its parent firm Exelon Corp., as well as from SBC/AT&T and Comcast.
In fact, ComEd/Exelon is Rush's top congressional career contributor, with its employees and political action committee giving $113,100 to his Citizens for Rush fund since 1992, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money and politics.
SBC/AT&T is second on the list with $89,964, and Comcast employees have given $35,000.
While it is impossible to assign cause and effect, at critical junctures Rush parted with fellow liberal Democrats in Congress to take pro-industry positions aligned with corporate benefactors SBC/AT&T, Comcast and ComEd. Rush supported legislation desired by the telecommunications industry, supported the joint venture between Comcast and NBC, and opposed mandating new safety features for nuclear power plants.
The $50,000 donation from the Comcast Foundation in 2011 went to the Beloved Community Family Services, a social services agency Rush founded that operates out of the Chicago church he runs at 6430 S. Harvard. Rush's wife Carolyn currently serves as president of the social service agency's board.
The donation was made for capital expenses for a Saturday academic program to bolster student interest in science, technology, engineering, math and the arts, Fitzmaurice said.
Though Rush still serves on the subcommittee that oversees the telecom industry, his interest re-focused on energy in January 2011, when he was elected ranking Democrat on the Energy and Power subcommittee. He has longstanding connections to ComEd, the Chicago-based utility owned by Exelon.
In 2003, ComEd's president praised Rush's "vision" for supporting expedited approval in Illinois of Exelon's bid to purchase Illinois Power.
"This purchase would promote stability in the electric structure," said Rush, quoted in a ComEd press release.
During that period, ComEd also showed its support for Rush in his role as pastor and founder of Beloved Community Christian Church. The congregation was meeting in a school when ComEd donated a surplus substation at 6540 S. Lowe, worth $75,000, to the church in December 2002, records show.
Since then, ComEd has donated at least $5,000 each year to the church, and as much as $20,000 in 2005, the year the congregation purchased a much larger and more impressive building at 6430 S. Harvard. ComEd also donated generously to Beloved Community Family Services.
ComEd typically makes more than 100 charitable donations to Chicago and Illinois social services and educational organizations each year, but few are made to religious institutions.
Read More: The Million-Dollar Question
A nonprofit founded by Congressman Bobby Rush was given $1 million to create a "technology center" for a troubled South Side neighborhood. The project never happened. Where did the money go?
In addition to the donated property, over 10 years ComEd donated $112,500 to Beloved church and its social-services arm. Despite the financial support, the church fell behind in paying ComEd for electric service through 2009, culminating in a $25,000 bill and a lawsuit by ComEd that was quickly resolved – though how it was resolved remains unclear.
Rush has proved as friendly to ComEd's interests as he had been to the telecom giants. After the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster in Fukishima, Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission examined whether American plants needed safety improvements. One such upgrade would be to require filters on venting systems used during emergencies. But it would be expensive: $16 million per reactor.
The industry, including Exelon – the largest owner and operator of nuclear plants in the U.S. – argued it already had layers of protection against contamination, obviating any need for mandating filters.
At a congressional hearing this past February, Rush supported the industry preference for a "combination of systems" rather than a mandate for air filters.
In response to the question of whether Rush's legislative positions motivated its philanthropy, ComEd spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said it did not. Rather, said Gaffney, "Beloved Community meets our criteria for addressing community needs by providing youth development, health education and prevention services to severely underserved Chicago neighborhoods, such as Englewood and West Englewood."
In an interview with the BGA, Rush wouldn't answer specific questions about the pattern of corporate expenditures.
"You are confusing and conflicting this to a point where it's almost insulting," Rush said.