Longtime Obama pal Eric Whitaker keeps popping onto political scene

May 15, 2012

Eric Whitaker has been friends with Barack Obama ever since they pursued graduate degrees at Harvard together.

Whitaker — who now runs the Urban Health Initiative (UHI) out of the University of Chicago Medical Center — often vacations with the first family, is a regular golf partner of President Obama’s and has organized Chicago-area parties for when the president visits the Windy City.

Publicly released visitor logs show “Eric Whitaker” has officially visited the White House seven times during the Obama administration, mostly for social functions, including a July 4, 2010 pool party, a Feb. 2, 2011 Super Bowl party and a Feb. 24, 2011 Motown tribute concert. Two of those seven visits have been to the family residence.

But the White House visitor logs are limited in that they date back only to Sept. 15, 2009, and do not include “access records related to purely personal guests of the first and second families,” according to WhiteHouse.gov.

Those omissions could preclude many more “personal” White House visits by Whitaker.

On Monday, Whitaker’s close relationship with Obama was twice over thrust back into the public spotlight.

A new book by New York Times bestselling author Edward Klein titled “The Amateur” examines President Obama’s closest relationships, including with Whitaker.

In a Monday afternoon radio interview with Sean Hannity, Klein revealed that Whitaker had purportedly offered Rev. Jeremiah Wright — an infamous and challenging weight on Obama’s 2008 campaign — $150,000 to stay silent until after the election was over. Wright refused Whitaker’s offer, Klein said.

Also on Monday, White House Dossier reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded the UHI a $5.9 million taxpayer grant.

The UHI was originally inspired by a program created by Michelle Obama when she was a highly paid executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center. She was involved in creating the UHI as a means of pushing low-income Chicagoans with non-urgent ailments away from the university’s emergency room and toward neighborhood clinics.

Whitaker now leads that project.

HHS insisted that the decision to award the competitive grant to a program run by Obama’s best friend was free from White House involvement.

Obama’s relationship with Whitaker also intersected politically in 2008 when then-Sen. Obama sought to fend off questions regarding his political proximity to Tony Rezko.

Rezko, in his prior role as former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s fundraiser and adviser, had his business associates appointed to various positions and boards in the state. Using that leverage, Rezko was able to illegally demand financial kickbacks from businesses looking to set up shop in Illinois.

Rezko is now serving out a 10 and a half year prison sentence for his involvement in political corruption.

Obama said in a 2008 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times that he could only recall speaking to Rezko about filling a state job one time — when he recommended Whitaker be hired as Illinois’ director of public health.

“Somebody who I do remember talking directly to Tony [Rezko] about was Dr. Eric Whitaker,” Obama told the Sun-Times.

“He and I played basketball together when he was getting his master’s in public health at Harvard, while I was in law school there,” Obama explained. “He had expressed an interest in that job. I did contact Tony, or Tony contacted me, and I gave him a glowing recommendation because I thought he was outstanding.”

Whitaker served as the state’s director of public health from 2003-2007, but his time in the post was not without controversy: Whitaker oversaw a state board responsible for approving medical construction projects, which Rezko utilized to facilitate political kickbacks, according to testimony delivered during Rezko’s trial.

Rezko was eventually convicted, while Whitaker was never accused of any impropriety.

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