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Obama aide, appointee share Chicago business interest

Envoy friends in high-rise places

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.

It is one of her largest personal investments.

Mrs. Hartog Levin, a lawyer, valued her interest in Habitat Grand Kingsbury at between $100,001 and $250,000 on her personal financial-disclosure form filed on June 29, 2009, shortly before her nomination was announced. She said her husband's share in the company was worth more than $1 million, the disclosure form's highest value category for a spouse's interest.

Habitat's website calls Kingsbury Plaza a "luxury rental building" with monthly rents for studios starting at $1,307 and rents for two-bedroom apartments beginning at $2,715.

Mr. Vietor said Ms. Jarrett had no conflict of interest and no obligation to divest.

"Ms. Jarrett's investment in the rental property is the direct result of her 13 years working for Habitat and poses no conflict of interest with her duties at the White House; therefore, divestiture was not required or even necessarily appropriate, and the interest in the property was correctly disclosed on the new-entrant and annual financial-disclosure report," he said.

Ms. Jarrett joined Habitat in 1995 after working eight years for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, serving as a deputy chief of staff and later as planning and development commissioner. She served as part-time chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority from 1995 to 2003.

She first met the Obamas in 1991 when she was trying to hire Michelle Obama - then Michelle Robinson - for a job at City Hall. Miss Robinson reportedly said at the time that before she would accept the job, she wanted her then-fiance, Barack Obama, to meet Ms. Jarrett. They all became friends.

Ms. Jarrett has since played a key role in Mr. Obama's campaigns and acts as a sounding board for him. She served as finance chairman for his long-shot Senate campaign and co-chairman of his presidential transition committee.

Her title is White House senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public engagement. She acts as his intermediary to state and local officials and to the business community.

But Ms. Jarrett's clout is greater than her title. She was described by one Democratic strategist in a November 2008 article in the New York Times as "one of the four or five people in the room with him when decisions get made."

The same profile reported that Ms. Jarrett was fielding calls from "potential top diplomatic appointees."

Because of her proximity to Mr. Obama and their longtime friendship, she has been mentioned - among several others inside and outside the Obama administration - as a possible replacement for Mr. Emanuel if he steps down as chief of staff.

The Senate confirmed Mrs. Hartog Levin's ambassadorship in August 2009. During her confirmation hearing, Mrs. Hartog Levin called the Netherlands "a special place for me" and said her Dutch ancestry "can be traced back hundreds of years."

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said at the hearing that Mrs. Hartog Levin had the professional resume and people skills for the appointment and noted that her parents survived Nazi occupation before emigrating to the United States.

Mrs. Hartog Levin was born one month after her parents moved to the U.S.

"Despite starting a new life in America, her parents strongly reinforced their Dutch heritage with their children, including regular visits and contact with their relatives still living in the Netherlands today," Mr. Durbin said.

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