EXCLUSIVE: Democratic donors rewarded with W.H. perks

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“I think they’re doing a very good job keeping people up to date, trying to keep people well-informed,” Mr. Gilbert said.

A senior party official involved in devising the DNC program, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the party took pains to design it so access to senior officials would be tightly controlled. Supporters would have the chance to meet party leaders. But the DNC wanted to rule out requests to pair donors with officials on specific issues. The paramount objective, the official said, was to avoid putting party leaders in the position of being asked to deliver on a specific request.

Rewards for those who supported the president’s 2008 campaign have been doled out in less formal ways. Two top bundlers, for instance, described invitations to bring their families to the private bowling alley at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Both spoke on the condition they not be named because they did not want to damage their relationship with the White House.

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The White House said such invitations could have come through any of scores of staff members, and could have occurred without any input from the president or his senior aides.

In interviews, top Obama donors described different methods for arranging such perks. Some said they contacted Reggie Love, the president’s personal assistant, to request appointments or White House access. Others said they arranged meetings through regional finance directors at the DNC.

“Many people know Reggie because they met him on the trail over the two years he traveled with the president, which is why they reach out to him, but that is not exclusive to donors,” a White House official said. The courtship of top donors is overseen by Rufus Gifford at the DNC in consultation with White House political director Patrick Gaspard, party officials confirmed. Their activities are not new to presidential politics. But they offer a contrast to the public face of the president’s fundraising operation, which has always focused on its efforts to reach out to grass-roots supporters who send small-dollar donations through the Internet.

Muddy waters

Presidents have run into trouble using the White House to entertain political donors in the past, most notably in 1997, when it was discovered that Mr. Clinton had used White House coffees, overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and rides aboard Air Force One to cultivate and reward political support. Mr. Clinton said the sleepovers were justified because the guests were not only donors, but also close friends.

“The Lincoln Bedroom was never sold,” Mr. Clinton said at the time.

President George W. Bush rewarded his 246 “Pioneers,” who raised at least $100,000, with perks that included overnight stays at the White House and Camp David, parties at the White House and Mr. Bush’s Texas ranch, state dinners with world leaders and overseas travel with U.S. delegations to the Olympics and other events, according to a 2004 review by the Associated Press.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama acknowledged he suffered “from the same original sin of all politicians, which is we’ve got to raise money,” but said that he would fight against donor influence if sent to the White House.

“The argument is not that I’m pristine, because I’m swimming in the same muddy water,” Mr. Obama said during a campaign appearance. “The argument is that I know it’s muddy, and I want to clean it up.”

Democratic officials said they think it is important to note that Mr. Obama’s efforts to reward major donors are, in their view, on a far smaller scale than those of any other recent president.

“I would say that from our reckoning, our research, there are fewer donors getting fewer things, whatever you may call them, from this White House than from any White House in memory,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

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