When electricity was cut off in July 2010 at the South Side church run by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a long-time benefactor came to the rescue.

Oakbrook-based Oxford Media Group Inc., owned by multi-millionaire businessman Joseph Stroud paid the electric bill – which was well past due, totaling $17,900 owed to ComEd – on behalf of Rush’s Beloved Community Christian Church, records show.

Power was restored days later to the church, located at 6430 S. Harvard Ave., the records show.
 

The payment from Oxford represents one in a series of sizable donations to Rush’s church and political campaign from Stroud, his family foundation or business interests over the past 15 years or more. During much of this time, Stroud was trying to break into the wireless phone industry dominated by Verizon and AT&T, and Rush was pushing for federal tax incentives that would give one of Stroud’s firms a leg up as a minority-owned business, records show.

“This is really problematic,” said Joel Hefley, a retired Colorado Republican congressman who chaired the House Ethics Committee in the early 2000s. “Here’s a long-time benefactor of Rush – and he wanted something from the federal government – and he continues to provide something to Rush, if not directly, at least to his enterprise. I think that is really questionable.”

Rush’s relationship to charitable groups, including his church, has been the focus of Chicago Sun-Times/Better Government Association investigations, as well as congressional inquiries. A recent Sun-Times/BGA story found another political donor, with a major City of Chicago contract, paid the salary of Rush’s niece, an office manager at the congressman’s church. Rush is pastor at Beloved, which also was founded by him.

Stroud, who would not comment, is a television station owner. His Oxford Media operates the Chicago-area station WJYS, which airs religious programming.

One of a handful of African-American television station owners in the country, Stroud paid a firm $1.3 million to lobby Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, a federal agency that regulates the airwaves, from 2001 through 2010, federal records show.
 
Rush, a senior member of the House telecommunications subcommittee, has spent years pushing for legislation to increase minority ownership in the telecom field.
 
Rush sponsored bills in 2003, 2005 and 2007 that would have created tax incentives making it easier for Stroud and other minority-owned media companies to expand and move into the lucrative wireless industry. The legislation didn’t pass.
 
In late 2008, Stroud set his sights on buying the wireless assets – including the subscriber base – being divested by Verizon in more than 100 markets in two-dozen states. The telecom giant was divesting to satisfy antitrust concerns and gain government approval of its purchase of rival Alltel.

Stroud, who is black, wanted the FCC to encourage Verizon to sell at least part of its assets to a minority-owned firm. He failed in his bids to buy some of what Verizon was selling. AT&T was the successful bidder for most of the assets.

Stroud’s lawyers filed a protest with the FCC.

The businessman sought help from members of Congress, though it’s unclear whether that included Rush.

However, Rush appeared to be speaking about Stroud at a 2009 congressional hearing, ripping into members of the FCC for the “debacle” of failing to promote minority bidders in the purchase of Verizon’s assets.
 
In 2008, Stroud’s family foundation donated $79,165 to Rush’s church, according to the foundation’s tax returns. In 2009, the foundation donated another $35,000.
 
Stroud’s company is also a major political donor for Rush, contributing $50,000 to his failed mayoral race in 1999 while Stroud personally gave another $10,000 the next year to one of Rush’s local campaign funds, state records show.

Stroud’s last-ditch FCC protest of the Verizon sale was pending in 2010 when the lights went off at Rush’s church and Stroud stepped up to pay the electric bill.
 
Rush refused to comment for this story, other than to say via email, “I feel that this is nothing but a ‘witch-hunt’. I refuse to participate. As a Member of Congress I have assiduously attempted to conduct myself in accordance with the high standards of the House Ethics Committee.”
 
But Hefley said Rush’s acceptance of Stroud’s financial help is worth a review by the ethics committee to see whether rules were violated.
 
The Office of Congressional Ethics and the ethics committee investigated Rush after the Sun-Times/BGA revealed in 2013 that his campaign office had been paying no rent for years. The BGA also reported that another nonprofit started by Rush was given $1 million to create a “technology center” in Englewood, but the project never happened and Rush couldn’t fully explain what happened to the money.

The charitable arm of what is now AT&T supplied the $1 million as the telecom giant was pushing legislation in a House committee on which Rush was a key member.
 
Overall, phone, cable and electric companies (including ComEd) donated more than $1.7 million to charities affiliated with Rush – including Beloved – while the businesses secured his help in Congress, the BGA also reported.
 
No sanctions have come from Congress.
 
Congressmen may solicit donations for their personal charities – though only with advance written permission from the House Ethics Committee. During an interview with the Office of Congressional Ethics – whose transcripts also revealed the ComEd bill payment – Rush said he recalled talking to somebody from the committee, but couldn’t produce any written evidence, records show.
 
Gifts or donations are not allowed if they personally benefit a congressman.
 
Oxford’s donation to Rush’s church could be seen as personally benefitting Rush as he earlier was named in a lawsuit filed by ComEd over previously unpaid utility bills.
 
Rush’s lawyer, Scott Thomas, wrote the congressional ethics office last year to emphasize that Rush receives no personal benefit from the church and avoids ethical dilemmas by maintaining a real separation between church and state.
 
“His solicitations of funds for BCCC [Beloved Community Christian Church] may have been to a company here or there that had some interests before Congress, but he always wore his Pastor hat not his Congressman hat during those encounters, and he always steered clear of using Congressional resources,” Thomas wrote.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo. The BGA’s Patrick Rehkamp contributed to this report. They can be reached at chuck.neubauer@gmail.com or (312) 427-8330.

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