Contracts Went to a Longtime Donor

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

Two years ago, the office of Michelle Obama, the vice president for community relations at the University of Chicago Medical Center, published a glossy report detailing the improvements her office had made in the lives of local residents, in part by increasing ties to minority contractors.

Center administrators declined to disclose which businesses benefited; the report lists one -- Blackwell Consulting Services.

In 2005, the center expanded its bidding process and invited African American businessman Robert Blackwell Sr. to join a competition to upgrade the center's intranet, the in-house equivalent of a Web site. His company, Blackwell Consulting, won contracts totaling nearly $650,000.

Blackwell and his family, records show, have been longtime donors to the political campaigns of Michelle Obama's husband, Barack. Robert Blackwell Jr., a former partner in the firm, is a major fundraiser for Barack Obama. At various times, Blackwell Sr. says, his and his son's businesses each have retained Barack Obama as an attorney.

"I love Barack. I'm telling you, he's a wonderful guy," Blackwell said in an interview.

A spokeswoman for the medical center, Kelly Sullivan, said Michelle Obama "was not involved in the selection process."

Blackwell Sr. described the genesis of his contract as "really fuzzy." Sometime in 2004, he said, an employee of the center's diversity office -- he cannot remember who -- mentioned an opportunity to bid on contracts there and offered to "talk us up."

Blackwell Sr., who served with Michelle Obama for years on the board of a local literacy group, said her diversity program is critical because minorities don't always enjoy the informal social connections available to others.

"It's not just race," he said. "Getting access to tell your story is a factor of who you get to know. . . . People know people; they have friends. When you're trying to break in, if your father is the chairman or you have a friend from college or you have a frat brother in the company. . . .

"They might not have ever thought to include Blackwell Consulting. And somebody says to them, 'Blackwell Consulting has done some pretty good work.' And they say, 'Why don't you invite them in?' "

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