The Woods Fund of Chicago has been thrust into the middle of the latest controversy in the heated Democratic primary battle between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
As a result, the staff at the private foundation is now attempting to handle a swarm of attention from journalists, which is centered on a longtime Woods Fund board member and his relationship with Mr. Obama, who had been a member of the Fund’s board from 1998 to 2001.
The controversy stems from an exchange during Wednesday’s nationally televised debate in Philadelphia, where Mr. Obama was questioned about his relationship with William C. Ayers, a Woods Fund board member who had been part of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground.
The Weather Underground used terroristic methods, such as setting bombs, to protest the war. Mr. Ayers had later written that he did not regret setting the bombs.
During Wednesday’s debate, Mr. Obama was questioned about his ties to Mr. Ayers through the Woods Fund — a private foundation with more than $58-million in assets that works to alleviate poverty.
According to the Woods Fund’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service, Mr. Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been a member of the Woods Fund’s board of directors since at least 1998. He has received $6,000 annually for his work on the board.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, had been a board member from 1998 through 2001.
The foundation’s Form 990-PF tax filings show Mr. Obama received similar $6,000 payments in 1998, 1999, and 2000. He did not receive any compensation in 2001, the tax records show.
George Stephanopoulos, one of the ABC News moderators of the debate, asked Mr. Obama about his relationship with Mr. Ayers.
“An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly,” Mr. Stephanopoulos said. “Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”
Ms. Clinton then brought up the fact that both men had been members of the Woods Fund board — a connection Mr. Obama said is not relevant to his White House aspirations.
“President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago,” Mr. Obama said.
The exchange prompted a flood of calls today to the Woods Fund’s office, said a spokeswoman, who explained that the calls were coming at a particularly bad time for the organization.
Its president, Deborah Harrington, is sick and has been unable to reply to the flurry of inquiries.
“We are under siege,” the spokeswoman said.
She said she could not comment on the relationship between Mr. Ayers and Mr. Obama.
Mr. Ayers, for his part, did not return a phone call left this morning at his office.