Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Senator Dick Durbin's press secretary provided false information re: Durbin's longstanding relationship with tainted Save-A-Life Foundation including the failure to disclose his million dollar appropriations request for SALF

1995 CNN report about SALF. Durbin (1:45): "When (Carol Spizzirri) came in and sat down with me and told this story to me face to face, I was with her and decided I would do everything I could to help her."

In e-mails last year, US Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin's press secretary Christina Mulka provided a variety of false information about her boss's relationship with the Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF), the embattled Chicago-area nonprofit under investigation by the Illinois Attorney General and apparently by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Perhaps most seriously, she failed to disclose a 1999 request by Sen. Durbin for a $1 million appropriation to SALF, funding that went through the following year.

In year 2000 applications for $50,000 in Illinois state funding, SALF claimed Durbin was a member of the organization's corporate Advisory Board.

That same year, Durbin was listed as Honorary Chairman for a SALF Dinner Dance fundraiser.

And according to an August 28, 2006 press release issued by Mayor Richard Daley's office, SALF partnered in a Chicago emergency preparedness program spearheaded by Durbin.

Three months later, SALF and its founder/president Carol J. Spizzirri were the subject of a scorching ABC I-Team expose.

Durbin isn't the only one in the shadows of SALF. Recently, Illinois newspapers reported that the pending appointment of Gery Chico, another prominent Illinois Democrat, to head the Illinois State Board of Education has stalled as a result of questions being asked about his ties to SALF.

And last month a Michigan educator asked US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to answer questions about a $174,000 contract Duncan arranged for SALF when he was Chicago Schools CEO.

Back to Senator Durbin, here's an e-mail exchange from last year between his press secretary and blogger Lee Cary of Little Elm, Texas (north of Dallas), who was asking about the senator's connection to SALF and Spizzirri. (Click here to view the originals.)
From: Mulka, Christina (Durbin)
To: Lee Cary []
Sent: Friday, July 30, 2010 12:51 PM
Subject: RE: media inquiry - SALF


Senator Durbin’s involvement was limited to the service he would provide for any Illinois constituent – he and his staff helped the founder navigate the bureaucracy in Washington. As you saw in the CNN video, Senator Durbin’s support was personal in nature and did not extend beyond having sympathy with Carol Spizzirri. Senator Durbin wrote no legislation on behalf of SALF and never worked to appropriated (sic) funding for the organization.
And, I hardly think that a video – that is 15 years old – of Senator Durbin expressing sympathy for a woman who lost her daughter in a tragic accident is evidence of long-term support.
Christina Mulka
Press Secretary
From: Lee Cary []
Sent: Friday, July 30, 2010 6:18 PM
To: Mulka, Christina (Durbin)
Subject: Re: media inquiry - SALF


Thanks for your prompt reply.

Based on your response, my understanding is that the Senator is on the record that his last contact with the Save-A-Life Foundation was in 1995. If that information is incorrect, please get back to me by end of the day Tuesday, 8/3. If you require more time, please advise and I'll do my best to adjust to your schedule.

By the way, regarding Ms. Spizzirri and her organization, you may wish to watch this 11/16/06 ABC7 report by Chuck Goudie. Google for more.

From: Mulka, Christina (Durbin)
To: Lee Cary []

Sent: Monday, August 02, 2010 2:23 PM
Subject: RE: media inquiry - SALF

Lee –

You have asked about a 15 year old contact between then-Congressman Durbin and a constituent; I explained he was sympathetic to her in the wake of terrible personal tragedy.

You have asked whether Sen. Durbin has provided support for her or her organization; I explained that other than being sympathetic on a personal level, he has not secured federal or private funds for her or her group, and did not introduce any legislation to assist SALF while he served in the House or the Senate.

You asked for an on-the-record statement from our office; we provided you with such a statement. In each case, I have responded as quickly as possible and to the best of my ability about an event that occurred more than a decade ago, and has not been an on-going issue for this office since.

And off-the-record: Given the ideological bent of your website, I will confess that I am suspicious of your motives. I think we will let our responses to your previous questions stand, and move on to other, more timely matters.

Christina Mulka
Press Secretary
Mulka's "ideological bent" comment is probably because, in a previous e-mail, Cary identified himself as a writer for the American Thinker, a hard-right online magazine.

And a quick aside to potential sources: The Sidebar doesn't publish off the record information. In this case I'm making an exception because last September the American Thinker published Mulka's e-mail in an article by Cary, including her off the record comment.

Regarding Mulka's on the record statements, this may be her biggest fail: an October 31, 1999 request for $1 million for SALF in a letter from Durbin to Sen. Arlen Specter, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education.

A year later, $921,000 came through via the CDC (which is under the aegis of HHS), which eventually awarded SALF a total of about $3.33 million.

Durbin's funding request letter (click here to download) contains what I consider to be these unsupportable claims:
This organization has trained 35,000 Cook County children since October, 1998, with the assistance of 150 firefighters, paramedics, and police officers as their instructors.
For example, although the Chicago Tribune reported in 2009 that "2 million children took the classes, many of them from the Chicago Public Schools," per my website, the Chicago Public Schools have been unable to produce any training records.

Therefore it's unclear where Durbin's claimed 35,000 Cook County children were trained and who the 150 instructors were. So where did he obtain the numbers?

During the reporting of this story, I posed that and other questions to Christina Mulka.

She repeatedly refused to participate in this report.

Per this suburban Chicago newspaper article, Durbin was involved with SALF since before February 1995.

The article contradicts this claim Mulka made to Cary:
You have asked about a 15 year old contact between then-Congressman Durbin and a constituent....
But according to the 1995 article:
Congressman Richard Durbin (D-Chicago) was an early supporter of Save A Life Foundation President and Founder Carol Spizzini's efforts. 

"I received a letter stating, "I am not a resident of your district, but I would like to speak with you in Washington." The chances of me responding to that letter are normally slim and none
(sic) but I was so moved by her story," Durbin stated.
Later that year, Durbin told CNN reporter Lisa Price (timestamp 1:45 in the video at the top of this item):
I've found the very best legislation in Washington DC comes from those personal, human, and family experiences. When (Carol Spizzirri) came in and sat down with me and told this story to me face to face, I was with her and decided I would do everything I could to help her.
During that face to face meeting, presumably Spizzirri failed to mention these personal, human, and family experiences reported last year by Don Bauder in the San Diego Reader:
(Carol) Spizzirri was a darling of politicians and bureaucrats, although it was a matter of record that she had been convicted twice for shoplifting. Save-A-Life began raking in money from government grants. 
...But it wasn’t until November of 2006 that ABC 7 News in Chicago, in the first of several broadcasts, exposed more of Spizzirri’s untruthful statements. She had told the station that she was a registered nurse. But the station reported that the institution from which she had claimed to receive her nursing degree had never given her one. A hospital in which she had claimed to be a transplant nurse said she had been a patient care assistant, which is akin to a candy striper.
...(Spizzirri's daughter) Christina filed for an order of protection against her mother. A neighbor who lives four houses away was willing to be Christina’s primary caretaker. The complaint stated that Spizzirri had struck Christina “on several occasions and threatened her on many occasions.” The order of protection, granted the same month, barred Spizzirri from seeing her daughter at several locations such as school and work. Christina “fears her mother will attempt to harass her or retaliate,” said the complaint.
From a 1997 article in the Grayslake (IL) Review:
Grayslake's Carol Spizzirri could be spending a lot more time in Washington D.C. this summer...
Spizzirri could do a lot in Washington in addition to using the legislative support she's received from Senator Dick Durbin, but for the time being Spizzirri is concentrating on this part of the country.
In Washington a Durbin legislative aide, Melissa Merz, said the senator has been working on setting national certification standards.
"We have worked with Carol for two years," Merz said. "We will continue to work with her to determine what form this federal legislation will take. Senator Durbin has not introduced legislation yet, but we are working with the U.S. Department of Transportaion and the Illinois Secretary of State's office," she said.
Here's another problematic document, a page from two year 2000 grant applications submitted by SALF for $50,000 in Illinois state funding from the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs that listed SALF's board and executive associates:

Other names on the document (click here to view) include IL Secretary of State Jesse White, former Illinois first lady Lura Lynn Ryan (who died last week), John Wayne Gacy's attorney Sam Amirante, the late Peter Safar MD (who developed CPR), my father, and other notables.

How about this?

In addition to Durbin, Ryan, Wood, and Topinka (who apparently sent Happy Birthday greetings to Spizzirri about a week ago), the 2000 SALF Dinner Dance Committee includes a long list of luminaries including Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan and former Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine.

Three years later at SALF's annual conference, the relationship with Durbin's still in good standing :

Three years later, here's SALF participating in a City of Chicago program for which Durbin arranged the funding:

A few months after the press release (click here to download a copy), ABC7 Chicago aired an I-Team story by reporter Chuck Goudie that included:
One of Illinois' highest profile charities teaches the Heimlich maneuver to children while maneuvering the truth to get money from government and big business.

It's called the Save-A-Life Foundation and is known across Illinois as an organization that teaches schoolchildren how to respond in emergencies. For the past few years, Save-A-Life has received millions of dollars in government funds and corporate donations. An ABC7 I-Team investigation has uncovered a series of misleading claims and deceptive credentials that raise doubts about Save-A-Life's integrity, funding and training.
Weeks ago I extended to Christina Mulka (and to Sen. Durbin's chief of staff Pat Souders) multiple opportunities to address the false information she provided to Lee Cary. I even graciously offered her this escape route:
(When) you provided the statements to Mr. Cary, you may not have consulted Senator Durbin beforehand and therefore were not in command of the facts...In order to avoid further inaccuracies, this is to request that you share with Senator Durbin the e-mails you sent to Mr. Cary on July 30 and August 2 last year. In the event that you or the senator wishes to revise those statements, please respond by next Monday, June 20. If you require more time, please advise before then and I'll accommodate your schedule.
Below are my final attempts and her last response.

Mulka also declined to answer these questions I previously submitted:
Does Senator Durbin agree or disagree that the Inspector General of HHS should initiate an investigation into the funding SALF received from the CDC?
A former SALF employee has stated that Senator Durbin visited SALF's Schiller Park offices in approximately January 2006. Has Senator Durbin ever visited SALF's offices? If so, on what date(s) and for what purpose(s)?
10/9/11 UPDATE: From the Federal Register, I just found this notation about the appropriation Sen. Durbin helped arrange:
Assistance for this project will be provided only to the Save a Life Foundation. FY 2001 Federal appropriations specifically directs CDC to award funds to the Save a Life Foundation. No other applications are solicited.