Oberstar, St. Thomas in overly cozy endowment?




First we read that university endowments are taking a beating. Now it looks like some are the tools of corporations looking to get cozy with politicians.

One wonders whether that’s the case with Democratic U.S. Rep. James Oberstar and the University of St. Thomas. Both are in a New York Times article about potential conflicts of interest between politicians and university endowments partially funded by corporations with matters before Congress.

The endowment in question is the James L. Oberstar Professorship of Law and Public Policy, which the Times reports is funded in part by FMC Corporation, Cliffs Natural Resources and U.S. Steel.

The Times says that kind of relationship could pose an ethical conflict such as one that U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel is accused of in a complaint before the House of Representatives.

Oberstar is one of 10 senators and representatives mentioned in the story. In his case:

Many donors have specific agendas for which they are seeking lawmakers’ help. For example, FMC Corporation, a chemical company based in Philadelphia, has made at least three contributions to an endowment created at a Minnesota law school in honor of Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Separately, the company’s lobbyist in Washington has met with Mr. Oberstar’s staff in the last year seeking his support for changes in federal highway legislation that would result in more widespread use of an FMC product, lithium nitrate, in road projects to prevent cracking.

An FMC spokesman said in a statement that the donations are unrelated to the company’s lobbying pitch, and they were not requested by Mr. Oberstar. Still, the lobbyist, Lizanne Davis, said she was pleased with his office’s response.

“They were interested in hearing what we had to say,” she said.

 And in such cases, the universities appear happy to act as the go-betweens:

Unlike Mr. Rangel, Mr. Oberstar and most of the lawmakers being honored with university centers avoid requesting donations themselves, instead leaving such pleas up to staff from the universities or charities involved, aides said in interviews this week.