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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 01:40 am

Empty promises

Rabbi joins list of people stiffed by the governor

Untitled Document In early 2006, Gov. Rod Blagojevich faced a firestorm of criticism from Jewish leaders for his appointment of Louis Farrakhan’s “minister of protocol” to the Illinois Hate Crimes Commission. Several Jewish members resigned from the commission in protest of Sister Claudette Marie Muhammad’s appointment, but Blagojevich refused to back down and claimed that he didn’t know who she was when he put her on the commission. A handful of Jewish leaders opposed the mass resignations from the Hate Crimes Commission. One was Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz of the Agudas Achim-North Shore Congregation. Lefkowitz claims he was sharply and repeatedly criticized by other Jewish leaders for opposing the resignations. The situation had indeed created a gigantic controversy in Chicago at the time, and tensions were high. Blagojevich, who had just kicked off his reelection campaign, began desperately seeking allies as he tried to walk a fine line between angering African-American allies (several black legislators wanted him to stand firm on the appointment) and the Jewish community, so he asked some of the more sympathetic clergy to a meeting in his Chicago office. Lefkowitz attended that meeting with the governor and other religious leaders to discuss how to deal with the commission resignations. Before the meeting started, Lefkowitz claims, he was told by Blagojevich’s Senate floor leader, Carol Ronen, that the governor was interested in helping with his work and offered to free up $400,000 in grant money to help him build a nonsectarian community center in Uptown. Lefkowitz asked for $500,000 and was allegedly told that Ronen would see what she could do. After the meeting, Blagojevich helped Lefkowitz with his coat and allegedly said that he wanted to assist with the center project. Later Blagojevich attended a Passover Seder at the rabbi’s synagogue and once again promised him and the synagogue president, Steve Tuck, that he was still committed to the community-center grant. As you may have guessed by now, Lefkowitz never got the money. The furor over the Hate Crimes Commission eventually died down, the media moved on to other things, and Lefkowitz received a letter in May from the governor’s deputy chief of staff informing him that the state simply didn’t have enough money to help build the facility. Last week Lefkowitz sent a snarky letter to various Chicago newspapers, asking whether it’s possible “that as with Pilgrim Baptist Church, the check was sent to ‘the wrong place.’ ”
Pilgrim Baptist Church, you will recall, was the African-American church in Chicago that burned down in 2006. Blagojevich made a big show of pledging a million dollars to help rebuild the church during the campaign. But for some as yet unexplained reason the money instead went to a private school at the church. That school took the cash and then moved far away from Pilgrim’s neighborhood. The church itself got nothing. All of the school’s new state money, in fact, was spent to buy an entire floor of a building in Chicago’s Loop from an FBI mole who was helping the feds get the goods on Tony Rezko, the governor’s campaign fundraiser and a big-time Chicago real-estate developer. The school has not yet reopened, and the flap has caused Blagojevich to find another million dollars to help rebuild the church complex. As you may know, it gets weirder. The governor has granted just 67 pardons since taking office, but a rush pardon was put in place for the school’s director, who claimed on her pardon application that she feared that she couldn’t operate the school with a felony on her record. The school also never completed the paperwork to operate as a nonprofit entity, so that was taken care of as well. The governor’s office has claimed that Blagojevich didn’t put two and two together when he approved the woman’s application. Blagojevich himself has blamed a couple of former staffers for sending the money to the “wrong” place. Whether you believe him or not, Blagojevich is now apparently saying that the fastest, easiest, most efficient way to get money out of the state is for the governor to screw up. Rabbi Lefkowitz, take heed.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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