Tuesday, August 2, 2005

For a change, Al Franken sounded serious and didn’t want a fistfight. He didn’t seem to know much about Air America Radio’s loan scandal speaking to the New York Sun Monday, and said he had just learned the details last week. In sum, he sounded a lot like the politicians he plays “gotcha” with. Maybe Mr. Franken’s ambitions for Norm Coleman’s seat in the Senate are sobering him up a bit.

He didn’t know whether former Air America director and nonprofit executive Evan Cohen had transferred inner-city childrens’ money to Air America, nor whether the money had been used for Air America’s operations. Mr. Franken did know this: Air America had known about the problem before New York’s Department of Investigation began studying it. But a city spokesman says Air America “neglected to tell anyone at DOI or in the city about it.” Add another unanswered question to Air America’s tally.

Up to this point, Mr. Franken gets a pass: He is the talent, not the management. But now that he is apprised, Mr. Franken should get to the bottom of the scandal.

Here’s what is known thus far. On Friday, Air America confirmed that last year it did in fact take money from a city-funded nonprofit that runs progams in the Bronx for children and Alzheimer’s sufferers, and that it plans to pay the money back. It also revealed that it refuses to accept responsibility: First it blamed the Gloria Wise Boys & Girls Club, the nonprofit, calling the club’s alleged behavior “absolutely disgraceful”; then it blamed Progress Media, a now-defunct Air America parent company, and said it had no obligation to pay the money back. But Air America announced it would pay the money back because it is “very disturbed that Air America Radio’s good name could be associated with a reduction in services for young people.”

It’s also clear that Air America was the primary beneficiary of whatever “absolutely disgraceful” corruption occurred. As Jeannette Graves, president of Gloria Wise’s executive committee, explained to the New York Sun this week, Mr. Cohen received more than $800,000 for himself and for Air America. She and her colleagues approved two $35,000 “loans” to Mr. Cohen plus another $167,000 for Air America because “he had thrown a tremendously successful fund-raising affair for Gloria Wise in Manhattan last year.” He was “a very wonderful young man” who “left a very favorable impression.” The rest of the transfers apparently happened without Mrs. Graves’ knowledge: Someone approved a $213,000 loan with Mrs. Graves’ name rubber-stamped on it plus a whopping $400,000 wire transfer.

Mr. Franken should get to the bottom of this scandal. He didn’t create it, but he’s part of it, and he will be implicated if he does not help find the wrongdoers and compensate the victims. Besides, things get a lot tougher in the Senate, a place where fistfights and jokes won’t cut it.

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