Obama’s pay-to-play: Campaign donors rewarded with ambassador posts

Ethics expert: President has broken promise to change Washington money game

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President Obama came into office promising to change the way money influences government, but when it comes to the familiar Washington habit of rewarding big campaign fundraisers with coveted jobs, his administration is in overdrive.

The president’s latest nominations for ambassadorships include three fundraisers who raked in millions of dollars for his re-election campaign. These Obama loyalists are now in line for some of the sweetest overseas postings.

Mr. Obama on Tuesday tapped Matthew Barzun, former campaign finance chairman, as ambassador to Britain. Campaign bundler and former New York Times reporter Crystal Nix-Hines was chosen for a cultural post attached to the United Nations in Paris, and Washington bundler John Phillips, who raised more than $300,000 for the president’s two elections, was nominated as U.S. ambassador to Italy.

At least 11 of Mr. Obama’s diplomatic nominees this year have raised large sums of money for his campaigns or served on his campaign team.

The president in May picked Penny Pritzker, the Chicago hotel heiress whose financial support has been crucial to his political career, to become commerce secretary.

The practice of rewarding campaign supporters with cushy or powerful government posts isn’t new. George W. Bush appointed fundraising “pioneers” to ambassadorships, and many of Mr. Obama’s other predecessors have embraced the practice.

But government-reform advocates say it’s the kind of tradition that Mr. Obama promised to shun when he came into office pledging to “change how Washington works.”

“If anything, he’s put more of a focus on it, given the number of fundraisers he’s attended and the length of his bundlers’ list,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Certainly there’s no attempt to divorce financiers from the perks of ambassadorships and plum jobs that have consistently been offered up as rewards for that service.”

A White House spokesman pointed to the qualifications of the diplomatic nominees. He said Mr. Phillips‘ credentials for Rome include his “Italian heritage” — his grandparents emigrated from Italy, where their family name was Filippi — and his work on numerous charitable projects overseas. Mr. Phillips is the husband of former TV reporter Linda Douglass, who worked in the Obama White House.

“In filling these posts, the administration looks for the most qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one.”

Ms. Krumholz scoffed at the administration’s explanation.

“Nobody is going to say, ‘Oh yes, they purchased that ambassadorship,’” she said. “But this is the understanding that bundlers bring to the work.”

From the start of his presidency, Mr. Obama has waged a public crackdown against registered lobbyists. He banned them from serving on government boards and announced that he wouldn’t accept campaign contributions from them.

Although he has largely stuck to that campaign pledge, the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation said Mr. Obama’s campaigns did accept donations from influence-peddlers who, “while not registered, walk and talk an awful lot like lobbyists, including advisors who manage lobbyists.”

“Many, many big donors in the influence business have contributed to the president,” the foundation said in its report.

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