Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) challenged on support for Serbia

By Jim Tankersley
Washington Bureau
9:58 PM CDT, March 21, 2008

Even in a rhetorically charged political season, House candidate Steve Greenberg stands out: He's all but accusing Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) of disloyalty to the United States.

At issue is Bean's support for Serbia, the country her grandparents left for America, and Serbian-Americans' financial support for her re-election campaign. Greenberg, a Republican, said in a press release this week that Bean was "flagrantly working on behalf of foreign interests against the interests of the United States"—and that the Serbian government was repaying her by illegally steering contributors her way. He's also charged Bean with supporting "Serbian criminals" and "anti-American fundamentalists," referring to the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade

Bean's spokesman and her supporters rejected Greenberg's comments, which have touched off a surge of donations from across the Chicago area, home to the largest ethnic Serb population in the U.S.

Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Greenberg "has resorted to saying anything to get attention—regardless of how shameful and desperate." Bean's spokesman Jonathan Lipman said the congresswoman "doesn't respond to ethnically and religiously divisive attacks, even when they go so far as to demonize an entire ethnic community and question their patriotism."

Greenberg campaign spokesman Brad Goodman responded: "It's very typical of Washington politicians, like Ms Bean, when caught under ethical clouds, the first thing they do is blame someone else."

Nearly a year ago, Bean sponsored a House resolution opposing Kosovo's efforts to secede from Serbia, a measure also supported by freshman Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), a Greenberg backer. Greenberg criticized Bean for the resolution late last month, after Kosovo declared independence and the Bush administration recognized it diplomatically. Roskam's spokesman declined to comment for this story. No vote was taken on the resolution.

Greenberg's press release slammed Bean for taking money from a pro-Serbian group in Washington. It repeatedly called the congresswoman "Melissa Luburich Bean," invoking her Serbian maiden name. Critics likened it to opponents calling the Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois "Barack Hussein Obama."

This week, after Bean scheduled a fundraiser at the home of an American supporter who is married to Serbia's consul general in Chicago, Greenberg called for the FBI and the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether foreign nationals were illegally helping Bean's campaign. Greenberg's campaign said the main attraction of the event was access to the consul general, Desko Nikitovic. It offered no proof of any donations to Bean by non-U.S. citizens, which federal law prohibits, but called the event an "unethical, illegal … quid pro quo."

Nikitovic's wife, Ryann Whalen, said her husband had no involvement with the fundraiser and no plans to attend it. His name is not listed on the invitation, though Whalen is identified as "Ryann Whalen Nikitovic."

After Greenberg publicized the event, Whalen asked organizers to relocate it to a Serbian restaurant on Chicago's Northwest Side, citing safety concerns. "In my opinion," said Whalen, president of the Serbian Bar Association of America, "this brings negative campaigning to an entirely different level."

The chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, criticized Greenberg this week in an online column for The Hill newspaper for "suggesting that Bean should neither take money from nor associate with Serbian-Americans because they, like Bean, are not to be trusted or treated as loyal Americans.

"This is, of course, both silly and dangerous," Keene continued, before concluding that Bean is vulnerable on other issues such as a pro-union vote.

A National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman, Ken Spain, did not directly address the Serbian issues in a statement on Bean's fundraiser and Greenberg's reaction. "There is a clear difference between taking a public stand on an issue and attempting to parlay legislative activity into campaign cash," Spain said. "At the very least, Melissa Bean's fundraising practices certainly warrant some questioning."

The flap is reminiscent of the 2002 Democratic primary for the open House seat eventually won by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). A prominent Polish-American supporter of Emanuel's opponent, Nancy Kaszak, incorrectly accused Emanuel of holding Israeli citizenship and serving in its military. The supporter, Edward Moskal, said Israel "defiles the Polish homeland and continues to hurl insults at the Polish people."

Kaszak severed her relationship with Moskal and called on him to apologize.

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