The White House is brushing aside a report that one of President Obama's top aides and a key member of his inner circle was paid $100,000 in speaking fees from an affiliate with a company doing business with Iran's government.
David Plouffe, Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign manager and current senior adviser received the six-figure speaking fees from MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company that at the time had been involved in a widely reported partnership with a state-owned Iranian telecommunications firm, The Washington Post reported on Monday.
In exchange for the $100,000, Mr. Plouffe delivered two speeches to the company in Nigeria in December, 2010, about a moth before he joined the White House staff. The MTN Group is under intense scrutiny from U.S. authorities for its activities in Iran and Syria, both of which are under increasing international sanctions focused on limiting the countries' access to sensitive technology.
White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to questions about Mr. Plouffe's decision to speak to the company and accept the $100,000 speaking fee by focusing on the timing of the story, three months before the presidential election, and the Republican criticism it's generating.
"I certainly don't recall similar criticism by the [Republican National Committee] of Bush advisers who had given paid speeches to companies that were cited for violations of financing with Iran," Mr. Carney told reporters during Monday's briefing. "This is clearly politics."
Mr. Carney also said Mr. Plouffe consulted an attorney about the propriety of accepting the speaking fee before agreeing to do so and pointed out watchdog groups had yet to raise concerns about the company when Mr. Plouffe accepted the speaking role.
When one reporter pointed out that Mr. Obama had pledged to raise the ethical bar when it came to he and his staff working with lobbyists and business interests, Mr. Carney said the story and GOP criticism of one of Mr. Obama's top advisers was clearly "designed to score some [political] points."
There were no legal or ethical restrictions on preventing Mr. Plouffe from giving the speeches to MTN while a private citizen, but the six-figure compensation from a company involved in Iran puts the administration in an awkward position as it presses ahead with more sanctions on the Islamic republic.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, previously told The Washington Post on Sunday that criticizing Mr. Plouffe would be unfair because MTN Group's role in Iran was not a high-profile issue when he was invited to speak to the affiliate.
"He gave two speeches on mobile technology and digital communications and had no separate meetings with the company's leadership," Mr. Schultz said in a statement. "At the time, not even the most zealous watchdog group on this issue had targeted the Iranian business interests of the host's holding company. Criticism of Mr. Plouffe now for issues and controversies that developed only years later is simply misplaced."
Mr. Plouffe's speeches to MTN are particularly awkward for the president because the U.s. government is growing increasingly concerned that the Iranian government has used MTN operations or technology to help monitor dissidents.
Company representatives and South Africa's ambassador to the United States have been meeting with U.S. officials to try to prove that the firm is complying with U.S. sanctions, officials familiar with the talks told The Washington Post.
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