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Behind the screaming headlines

Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011 - Posted by Rich Miller

* The Associated Press often acts like a giant blogger by repackaging stories into little briefs. Too often, though, those briefs skew the story. For instance, this story is headlined: “Insiders got early notice of college savings deal”

People with connections to the Illinois treasurer’s office got early notice of a limited offer that added cash to college savings accounts, giving them an edge over thousands of people who were shut out of the deal.

Treasurer Dan Rutherford tells the Chicago Tribune that early word was sent out solely as a promotion because officials weren’t sure the new offer would be popular. Rutherford says it was a mistake that won’t happen again.

The offer was for the Bright Start savings program. People could deposit up to $250 and have that money matched by the firm running the program.

* You already know the back story. Bright Start’s administrator, Oppenheimer Funds, sent out 100,000 letters to the college savings program participants on May 31st offering to match their next $250 contribution. Trouble is, the offer was limited to the first 2,500 people and about 8,500 people took up the offer by going to the plan’s website. But the website wasn’t changed to reflect the fact that the money had dried up until a day after all the cash was spoken for, which left some folks quite angry.

* The Tribune reports that Rutherford’s office sent its workers an e-mail the same day Oppenheimer mailed the letters from New Jersey, giving Rutherford’s employees a clear head start on everyone else. That was obviously a bad move. The e-mail encouraged the employees to forward the offer to their friends and family. Not good, either.

* However, Rutherford’s employees were not eligible for the matching funds, according to the Tribune’s report. That little factoid was buried deep within the Trib’s story, which was headlined “Family, friends got head start in Bright Start match - Treasurer’s office employees were sent email about $250 program before general public received letters.”

The workers’ friends and family were eligible, of course, but the Tribune could only find “about 25 people” who were forwarded the e-mails from state accounts. Not great, but hardly a gigantic scandal.

The Tribune also noted that the Bright Start website announced the program on May 27th - days before anybody was notified by e-mail or snail mail.

And, despite what the AP claims, Rutherford himself was never quoted by the Tribune as saying “early word was sent out solely as a promotion because officials weren’t sure the new offer would be popular.” That comment was attributed by the Trib to an official at his office.

* Whether this was just another stupid bungle or something more nefarious, this whole thing has become a PR disaster for Rutherford, who obviously thought the stunt would be popular

Doran Phillips, who has a savings account for his 31/2-year-old son, said he still hasn’t received the promotional letter and feels cheated out of $250.

“It was just a screw-up, but still it had a bad consequence,” said Phillips, of Palos Park. “They are giving away this money and couldn’t give it away in a fair and responsible manner. They devised a method of giving it away that was totally unfair unless you happen to be one of the lucky people.”

The $625,000 for the promotion came from Oppenheimer Funds, which manages Bright Start, as part of its contract with the state to pay for scholarships. Oppenheimer was responsible for mailing the letters and updating the website, treasurer’s office officials have said.

The promotion was open to existing account holders who made a one-time special contribution. Account holders who coincidentally made a donation at the beginning of the month, even if it was unrelated to the promotion, received the match.

Unfortunately for Rutherford, the TV ads about this will write themselves.


  1. - VanillaMan - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 1:47 pm:

    When did you want to combine those two constitutional offices?

    Your options are either wearing the boxers three days or going commando… That is, if you aren’t doing so already…

  2. - Kyle Hillman - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:01 pm:

    “…the TV ads about this will write themselves.”

    I am thinking a nice photo of a kid who can’t afford college funds…

  3. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:04 pm:

    Kyle, the headlines will be even better. Perhaps laid on top of that photo. Better yet, worried-looking middle class parents.

  4. - How Ironic - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:06 pm:


    Nice job Dan.

  5. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:10 pm:

    Geez, nobody thought to say this is a bad idea?

  6. - Anonymous - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:22 pm:

    Factoid originally meant untrue fact, and now sometimes means trivial but true fact. I think that the employee’s ineligibility is not trivial for purposes of the story.

  7. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:22 pm:

    It was meant ironically, Anonymous.

  8. - Anonymous - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:25 pm:

    Sorry, slow today.

  9. - Vote Quimby! - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 2:50 pm:

    ==officials weren’t sure the new offer would be popular==
    Yeah, “free money” is always hard to sell. Most important question: did the letters have “Illinois” spelled correctly?

  10. - Anon - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 3:26 pm:

    I don’t normally comment, but I would like the Treasurer’s office to know that I will be pulling my money out of Bright Start and putting it in a traditional college savings fund. I was one of the suckers that took $250 out of my own savings account because I thought it would be matched. I no longer have faith in any political office to manage my long term investments. I encourage others to comment on this issue because I know the Treasurer’s office reads this blog.

  11. - Coach - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 3:40 pm:

    You could have some fun with a mail piece juxtaposing this debacle with the recent pic of Rutherford accepting the gigantic check from investors.

    “Even as Dan Rutherford chased the affection of millionaire investors, he made sure insiders had the first shot at financial incentives through his office,” or something to that effect.

  12. - Rich Miller - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 3:42 pm:

    Apparently, that check was superimposed on the photo. Not his fault.

  13. - Coach - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 3:52 pm:

    Also, does anybody believe that Rutherford had no knowledge of the email to staffers before hearing about it from the Trib?

    C’mon, that’s just not plausible. This whole program was obviously designed to boost his political profile; I can’t imagine he didn’t directly participate in detailed discussions about the rollout.

    Good thing he has a large contingent of taxpayer-paid press secretaries at his disposal. This story probably will last a while …

  14. - Vote Quimby! - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 4:02 pm:

    ==Apparently, that check was superimposed on the photo. Not his fault.==
    I missed the update on that one. Thanks for the correct info.

  15. - bored now - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 4:05 pm:

    well, since rutherford is running for governor, he may not care. especially if he can convince everyone to combine the offices…

  16. - steve schnorf - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 4:08 pm:

    Rutherford is a good guy and a good Treasurer. If this little tempest in a teapot is the most bad news about his first year in office, he will have had a good first year

  17. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 4:35 pm:

    @Schnorf -

    Rutherford is a good guy. The jury is still out on whether he’s a good Treasurer.

    1. This “tempest in a teapot.”

    2. Threatening to tell folks not to buy Illinois bonds, undermining our creditworthiness.

    3. Flip-flopping on borrowing.

    One thing’s for sure. He can’t use the “We may be incompetent, but we’re not corrupt” defense in a run against Pat Quinn.

    I’m all for giving Rutherford the benefit of the doubt on this one. But the voters have largely run out of “Benefit of the Doubt” I think.

  18. - jerry 101 - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 5:11 pm:

    What I don’t get is why the State Treasurer’s office is still doing business with Oppenheimer in the first place. Oppenheimer managed the funds that got Giannoulias in so much hot water, now they were managing this promotion.

    Maybe Oppenheimer needs a new slogan:
    “Oppenheimer…working undertime to wreck your State Treasurer’s political career.”

  19. - Tom Joad - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 5:27 pm:

    Rutherford has been spending so much time on trying to get national press, campaigning with Mitt Romney and critizing Quinn that he forgot he was elected to watch over our money. Using the Treasurer’s office as a steppingstone to highher office, like his predecessor, results in little attention to the job he was hired to do.
    His absurd press release about how Illinois could file bankruptcy shows how little he knows about bankruptcy laws and Illinios. It can’t happen.

  20. - Phineas J. Whoopee - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 5:37 pm:

    A political office should not be administering savings plans. It is a recipe for disaster but at the very least the investors should have to go through an financial advisor who could explain the plan. With Bright Start their stuck with a bureaucrat and a website.

  21. - CircularFiringSquad - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 6:24 pm:

    Let’s also always remember the Tribbies continue their fruitless efforts to win major journalism awards for their breathless reporting of anythin college related. They are still batting zero — except of B. Joe White, but there is no iron in the trophy case. What a shame

  22. - Old Milwaukee - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 6:36 pm:

    When it’s all over, this will be a blip.

  23. - LincolnLounger - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 8:50 pm:

    Whether this is a blip or not depends on how he handles it. The “advance” e-mail was sent by one of his hires and longest-standing personal friends.

    Dan is one of the few bright spots for the Republican Party. I wish him well; however, at some point, the campaigning has to end and administration begin. Instead of memos to employees about the proper pronunciation of his last name and script for answering the office phone, perhaps the details of programs, administration, and ethics are in order.

  24. - King Louis XVI - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 10:25 pm:

    Rutherford is so busy running to every editorial board and every po-dunk radio station and every press conference that he can that he is not focused on the job.

    Look at his Facebook page. He’s always boasting about every time he’s behind a microphone.

    Moreover, Rutherford posted on Facebook that he was on a plane to Australia on June 1 when this whole thing started to unfold.

  25. - just sayin' - Wednesday, Jun 29, 11 @ 10:38 pm:

    It was all Pongee’s fault.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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