Whistle-blower, documents: Ill. state workers forced to attend Pelosi, Jesse Jackson Jr. event on taxpayer dime
Documents and a whistle-blower affidavit obtained by The Daily Caller charge that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., participated in an unethical — and possibly illegal — effort to force 76 employees of an Illinois state agency to engage in political activity on the taxpayers’ dime.
According to the whistle-blower, Rev. Jackson also encouraged the government employees to load first-generation and low-income college students up with student loan debt — because Democrats in Congress, he allegedly promised, would eventually pass laws to forgive that debt later. “[T]hose people will continue to vote Democratic,” Jackson Sr. said, according to the whistle-blower.
On March 3, Pelosi flew to Chicago to endorse Rep. Jackson Jr., 17 days ahead of a heated March 20 Democratic primary he later won. Pelosi was scheduled to make the endorsement at a press conference later in the day, after she participated in an hour-long “forum” hosted by the elder Jackson at the headquarters of his progressive Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Pelosi politicized that forum, jumping the gun and endorsing Jackson Jr. earlier than planned.
“One of the reasons I am here, and I will do this following this wonderful meeting, is to publicly state my endorsement of Jesse Jackson Jr. for re-election,” Pelosi said at the Rainbow PUSH forum. “I do so with great pride. I remember when he came to the Congress with a great name and a great tradition of his parents. But he came and he made his own mark in the Congress from his own generation.”
Adam Andrzejewski, chairman of the For The Good of Illinois PAC and a former 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate endorsed by Polish Solidarity movement founder Lech Walesa, told TheDC that a state government agency forcing workers to go the event was likely illegal. Even if it failed to violate any specific law, he said, the activity was undoubtedly unethical.
“Democrats in Illinois raised taxes by 67 percent and at the same time they are using taxpayer dollars and resources for blatantly political purposes,” Andrzejewski wrote in an email. “This is unethical, possibly illegal, and taxpayers, families, and seniors have a right to be outraged.”
Marcy Bailey, a 22-year-old who worked for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) Corps on March 3, swore out an affidavit on August 9 describing what happened that day.
In the signed and notarized affidavit obtained by TheDC, Bailey said she “did not want to attend this event,” and charged that the Rainbow PUSH forum “was soon overflowing with negative political energy directed towards the Republican Party. The two [Pelosi and Jackson Sr.] discussed many adverse things about the Republican Party, using harsh, derogatory remarks, while they reminded their audience about what they called the wonderful things that the Democratic Party was doing for the people.”
“Although e-mails from an ISAC supervisor would lead one to believe that my attendance was optional, during phone calls from Sara Henschen, my regional coordinator, and from Kim Galvan, ISACorps manager, I was told that I ‘must attend,’” Bailey wrote in her affidavit. “Repeatedly, my supervisors told me that ‘without a prior conflicting commitment, your attendance is mandatory.’ I stated that I did not feel comfortable going, but my supervisors told me that I did have to go.”
Bailey explained how Galvan told her to report her travel hours to and from Chicago — “approximately five hours and 500 round trip miles” from her residence — on her time sheets so she would be paid for the time. The agency also reimbursed her and her fellow ISACorps employees for hotel rooms and meals. She also stated that her coworker, who drove to Chicago and back, “would have been reimbursed for mileage.”
She and her coworkers were told to arrive at Rainbow PUSH headquarters, according to her affidavit, by 9:30 a.m. that day even though the Pelosi event didn’t start until 10:00 a.m.
“When I arrived at the meeting location, our ISAC directors instructed us to go to the second floor and congregate in a side hallway outside of zwhere Jesse Jackson Sr. was speaking to a group of individuals, including candidates and other political figures that were being addressed as ‘judge’ and ‘senator,’” Bailey wrote. “With cameras flashing, Jesse Jackson Sr., candidates and politicians left the conference room, and we were staged to look like we were political supporters. In other words, we were used as props during a campaign season.”
The ISACorps workers then moved into the forum where Pelosi and Jackson Sr. were set to speak. Bailey wrote that the event began as a non-political gathering — a forum for Pelosi to see the ISACorps workers — but later became “largely a political rally, and there was no opportunity for those of us who were not there to participate in a political rally to leave without it being noticeable.”
“As the program continued, Nancy Pelosi endorsed Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress,” Bailey continued. “No one from our state agency left the room or objected to our participation at a blatantly partisan political event, including my supervisor. I was fearful that any objection or other false move on my part would place my job in jeopardy. We were being videotaped and any disagreement would have left a record. I felt considerably isolated and intimidated by this. I felt sick to my stomach.”
In a phone interview with TheDC, ISAC spokesman John Samuels denied that the event was political. “You’re full of shit,” he said.
Samuels also objected to TheDC referring to House Minority Leader Pelosi as “House minority leader,” saying, “It really pains you to call her ‘Speaker Pelosi’ doesn’t it?
“Rep. Jackson apparently had a second event where Speaker Pelosi endorsed him,” Samuels added, “Because I wasn’t present and no one from ISAC was present, nor were we asked to nor would we attend because it is a partisan event. That was covered by dozens of Chicago reporters, any one of whom would say ISAC was not there.”
After the Rainbow PUSH forum, however, Bailey and her coworkers were moved into a back room for a private meeting with Jackson Sr. and Rainbow PUSH organizer Rev. Janet Wilson, where Bailey said they received “job coaching.”
“Jesse Jackson Sr. said to work hard to help as many students as possible acquire student loans. Jackson Sr. encouraged us to network students, hold rallies and organize for ‘student loan forgiveness legislation,’” she wrote in her affidavit.
“Jesse Jackson Sr. also told us not to worry about loading students up with too much college debt, because Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats will eventually forgive all student loan debt. On the promise of debt forgiveness, ‘those people will continue to vote Democratic.’”
Bailey added that Jackson Sr. “asked how many ISACorps workers would be able to come to future events because our massive support looked great both in-person and on television.”
“Several workers raised their hand in response,” Bailey wrote.
The “job coaching” meeting with Jackson Sr., she said, “horrified” her.
“I thought our mission was to try to help students navigate the complexities of college choices,” she wrote, “and to help them to make good choices (including financial choices) so that they can lead better, more productive lives. Instead, Jesse Jackson Sr. seems to want to push less well-off college aspirants into more debt. And he does this not to improve their lives, but so that he has more political pawns to gain political power, since, as he explained it, people with debt will have to vote for Democrats if they want to get out of their student loans.”
Samuels did not deny that meeting with Jackson Sr. took place, saying he “was present” for it.
“He [Jesse Jackson Sr.] said that he believes that what we’re doing is important work,” Samuels said, “that education is one of the most important issues facing the country right now and he offered to have his picture taken with the group. Period.”
When asked if any “job coaching” occurred in that back room, as Bailey alleges, Samuels replied, “No. None whatsoever.”
When presented with Bailey’s allegation that Jackson Sr. advocated ISACorps workers increase first-generation college students’ debts because Democrats would eventually forgive their loans in exchange for Democratic Party votes, Samuels said, “That’s not true.”
Samuels did, however, add that the Rev. Jackson Sr. “expressed concern over the levels of student debt. But that’s — anybody can do that.” And he conceded that the Rainbow Push leader “expressed the interest that Operation PUSH people are pushing for debt forgiveness.”
Samuels also acknowledged another detail in Bailey’s account, repeating her recollection that Jackson Sr. asked the room, “Who here today has their own student loan debt?” Like Bailey, Samuels recalled many people raising their hands.
In addition to Bailey’s affidavit, an email chain the For The Good of Illinois PAC obtained from ISACorps indicates that on March 6, ISAC College Access Initiatives Managing Director Jacqueline Moreno tried to orchestrate a meeting with Rev. Janette Wilson of Rainbow PUSH. She planned to create at that meeting a “more structured relationship that feeds into a national framework.”
Moreno wanted to see Rainbow PUSH and ISACorps “work together in a more formal way.”
As additional confirmation of what happened in that room, Bailey cited a defensive email that ISAC Education Services Director of Post Secondary Education Services Aimee Melgar sent to the agency’s staff on Wednesday, March 14.
“Reverend Wilson from PUSH talked about rallying groups together on college campuses to address student loan forgiveness, etc,” Melgar wrote. “As a state agency, we cannot be involved in lobbying, signing petitions, having Facebook conversations on work Facebook accounts, or taking any stance around student loan debt on work time or on work accounts.”
“To clarify my point further, ISAC cannot be involved in helping PUSH with their student loan forgiveness efforts,” Melgar added.
Andrzejewski told TheDC that that March 14 email “first confirms the story of our whistle-blower and then repeats a problem probably far too common in the history of Illinois: a public denial with no teeth.”
“Two weeks later, ISACorps sent two members with Rainbow PUSH on a national tour of colleges,” he said.
On her way home from that Rainbow PUSH event in Chicago, Bailey said she “wrestled with what had just occurred.”
“How many others in that audience were like me, and effectively coerced into participating in what was really a political event?” she wrote. “Did the public know that this is what their money was paying for? … I personally felt used and just couldn’t continue to work at ISAC.”
Samuels did eventually confirm that the workers’ hotel and travel expenses were paid for with federal taxpayer money from a grant the agency receives annually.
“There were … a little bit less than $3,500 of reimbursements that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen the entire employee package,” Samuels said.
“Those were legitimate expenses that were paid for out of the federal [College Access Challenge] grant. … [M]ost of [the workers] were already attending other events in town. So, again, it’s not an incremental expense.”
Illinois law prohibits the use of “public funds” to “be used to urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition, or be appropriated for political or campaign purposes to any candidate or political organization.” ISAC may not have broken that law, though, as state law defines “public funds” as having been “appropriated by the Illinois General Assembly or by any political subdivision of the state of Illinois.” ISAC used federal taxpayer dollars for the March 3 event.
Using federal dollars, however, may violate the federal Hatch Act, which the U.S. Office of Special Counsel says requires that state and municipal workers “may not use official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or nomination for office” when their “duties [are] in connection with an activity financed in whole or in part by federal funds.”
Samuels said he was unsure whether Jackson Jr., Jackson Sr., Pelosi, or their staffs were aware that the government workers were required to atend.
“I’m not sure if they [the Rainbow PUSH Coaliton] were aware,” Samuels said. “I know that when you send an Outlook in a calendar invite there’s a category called ‘required’ and anybody’s name who you put into that field comes out as required. But it was a required event. [ISA]Corps members have required events.”
Asked if Pelosi or Rep. Jackson Jr. were aware that state employees were required to attend, Samuels responded, “I have no idea.”
Representatives for Jackson Jr., Jackson Sr. and Pelosi have not responded to TheDC’s requests for comment.
Follow Matthew on Twitter