Obama aide, appointee share Chicago business interest

Envoy friends in high-rise places

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President Obama’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Fay Hartog Levin, and senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, a shortlist candidate for White House chief of staff if Rahm Emanuel leaves to run for mayor of Chicago, have ownership interests in a multimillion-dollar, 46-story luxury apartment building in Chicago - a business relationship that predates the ambassador’s appointment last year.

Kingsbury Plaza, a 420-unit, blue glass building just north of the Chicago River, cost more than $100 million to build. It was developed between 2005 and 2007 by the Habitat Co., a real estate firm where Ms. Jarrett worked for 13 years and most recently served as president and chief executive officer.

Although it was well-known that Ms. Jarrett worked for the company and its founder, Daniel Levin, less well-known is that she had a major real estate investment in Kingsbury Plaza with him and his wife, who was named by Mr. Obama in July 2009 as ambassador to the Netherlands.

The Levins are major Democratic donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), giving more than $900,000 since 1989, nearly all of it to the Democratic Party. Each contributed about $25,000 to Mr. Obama’s political races, CRP records show.

“I was hoping for a fundamental shift in the way he hands out ambassadorships, but it hasn’t happened,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.

Mr. Holman said he found it “disturbing” that the Obama administration has continued handing out these “plum ambassador appointments to people who are friends or fundraisers or in the same social network.”

“I don’t know this ambassador,” he said. “She might be perfectly qualified. I just wish they would appoint ambassadors based on merit and not business connections and money.”

Although ambassadorships often are part of a “spoils system” that rewards big donors and the politically well-connected, the Obama administration’s appointment of Mrs. Hartog Levin with her ties to Ms. Jarrett, coupled with her family’s hefty political donations, goes well beyond the business-as-usual label.

The White House said Mr. Obama has long known Mrs. Hartog Levin and her husband and denied that Ms. Jarrett - or the apartment-building investment - played any role in her appointment.

“The president met Mrs. Hartog Levin and her husband in the early ‘90s, and he was aware that her family is from the Netherlands. They were not introduced by Ms. Jarrett,” said spokesman Tommy Vietor. “The fact that they hold a similar investment has absolutely no bearing on Mrs. Hartog Levin’s nomination.”

The Levins declined to comment.

According to the CRP, the Levins’ donations were the third-highest among ambassadors appointed by Mr. Obama, although the Levins were not on the list of 24 Obama bundlers - people who raised $50,000 to $800,000 for his presidential campaign - who received ambassadorships.

Ms. Jarrett severed most of her ties to Habitat Co. when she left in January 2009 for the White House. She collected $556,485 in deferred compensation in January 2009 on top of the $302,000 in salary she had been paid in 2008, according to her personal financial-disclosure forms.

She kept her investment in Kingsbury Plaza.

Ms. Jarrett valued her 10.67 percent equity interest in the Habitat Grand Kingsbury LLC, one of the partners in the apartment project, at between $250,001 and $500,000 as of Dec. 31, according to her personal-financial disclosure form filed with the White House. She reported no income from the investment that year, one of the first years the apartment building was open.

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