During his first nine months in office, President Obama has quietly rewarded scores of top Democratic donors with VIP access to the White House, private briefings with administration advisers and invitations to important speeches and town-hall meetings.
High-dollar fundraisers have been promised access to senior White House officials in exchange for pledges to donate $30,400 personally or to bundle $300,000 in contributions ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, according to internal Democratic National Committee documents obtained by The Washington Times.
One top donor described in an interview with The Times being given a birthday visit to the Oval Office. Another was allowed use of a White House-complex bowling alley for his family. Bundlers closest to the president were invited to watch a movie in the red-walled theater in the basement of the presidential mansion.
Mr. Obama invited his top New York bundler, UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf, to golf with him during the president’s Martha’s Vineyard vacation in August. At least 39 donors and fundraisers also were treated to a lavish White House reception on St. Patrick’s Day, where the fountains on the North and South Lawns were dyed green, photos and video reviewed by The Times and CBS News also show.
Presidential aides said there has been no systematic effort to use the White House complex to aid fundraising, though they acknowledge the DNC has paid for some events at the presidential mansion.
Many guests at the White House not only had fundraising connections, but also have personal friendships with the president, Mr. Obama’s aides said.
“Contributing does not guarantee a ticket to the White House, nor does it prohibit the contributor from visiting,” said Dan Pfeiffer, deputy White House communications director.
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“This administration has across the board set the toughest ethics standards in history. As a result, we have reduced special-interest influence over the policymaking process to promote merit-based decision-making,” he added.
But veteran Washington observers say the Obama-era perks still carry shades of the so-called “donor maintenance” programs of past administrations, when Bill Clinton rewarded fundraisers with White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and George W. Bush invited “Pioneers” to Camp David or his Texas ranch.
And the donor access raises questions about the fervor of Mr. Obama’s stated commitment to clean up what he once called the “muddy waters” of Washington, where political cash is exchanged for access, ethics experts said.
“Once you start trading money for access, you set up a situation where donors eventually say, ‘Well, actually I have another favor to ask,’” said Scott Thomas, a former Democratic appointee to the Federal Election Commission.
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