Founding Brothers
What's behind Obama's early rise?


Stanley Kurtz

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.”


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