President Obama’s campaign to bring change to the nation’s capital hasn’t kept him from continuing the Washington tradition of handing out ambassadorships to political friends and fundraisers.
An old college roommate, the head of an entertainment production company and a lawyer whose family made its money selling vacuum cleaners are among more than a dozen people who have won ambassadorships after raising a total of at least $4 million for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, according to public records.
The practice has been common for both political parties.
Since the Kennedy administration, presidents have given political appointees about 30 percent of the roughly 170 ambassadorships globally. While analysts say it’s too early to say how Mr. Obama’s administration will compare, government watchdog groups contend that the practice seems at odds with the president’s populist rhetoric against “special interests.”
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“Awarding ambassadorships and other government posts to major campaign donors highlights the systematic corruption in privately financed campaigns,” said Craig Holman, a spokesman for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group. “It is reprehensible that any government positions in the United States are awarded based on money rather than merit.”
Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, another watchdog group, said, “The reality is big givers expect something back, and candidates typically reward big givers.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Mr. Obama’s nominees are qualified.
“The president said in January he would nominate extremely qualified individuals like [John] Roos, former Congressman Tim Roemer and Miguel Diaz, who didn’t necessarily come up through the ranks of the State Department but want to serve their country in important diplomatic posts,” he said in a June 30 e-mail.
Mr. Roos, a lawyer, is the nominee for ambassador to Japan. Mr. Roemer was nominated to be ambassador in India. Mr. Diaz, a theology professor at St. John’s University, was nominated as ambassador to the Vatican. All three are political appointments, but only Mr. Roos was a fundraiser for Mr. Obama.
Asked whether appointing fundraisers to ambassadorships squares with Mr. Obama’s pledge to bring change to Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the president is appointing a mix of qualified people.
“I think you see a group of committed individuals and proven professionals that are eager to serve their country,” Mr. Gibbs said. “Some of those individuals were fundraisers; some of those were career ambassadors; some of those were people that left either teaching or some other thing like that.”
Before his inauguration, Mr. Obama told reporters he planned to have “some political appointees serving abroad.”
“It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants, but who haven’t come through the ranks of civil service,” he said.
Nominees raised millions
Ambassadorial nominees contacted by The Washington Times said they could not comment specifically on any criticism that their nominations were based on their fundraising or political support.
Courtney Dorman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Roos, said, “As you can imagine, John is deeply honored by the president’s intention to name him U.S. ambassador to Japan, and he looks forward to the confirmation process.”
Mr. Roos, chief executive of the Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati law firm, raised at least $500,000 for Mr. Obama’s campaign. After the Roos nomination, the Nikkei Weekly in Japan called him “an unknown quantity” who “apparently has few close friends or important friends in Japan.”
Describing Mr. Roos as a “staunch Democrat,” the paper also said he was “a major fundraiser for Obama’s presidential campaign and is clearly part of the president’s human network.”
If confirmed, Mr. Roos would replace Tom Schieffer, appointed by President Bush in 2005. Mr. Schieffer was part of an investment group including Mr. Bush that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989.
Among other big fundraisers, Mr. Obama’s recent nominations include:
c Laurie Fulton, a lawyer who raised at least $100,000 for Mr. Obama, to be ambassador to Denmark.
c Louis Susman, a former bank executive and prominent Democratic donor who raised at least $200,001, for the United Kingdom.
c Charles Rivkin, who recently resigned as chief executive and president of W!ldbrain, an entertainment production company, and who raised at least $500,000, for France.
c Vinai Thummalapally, a roommate of Mr. Obama’s at Occidental College who raised between $100,000 and $200,000, for Belize.
c Bruce Oreck, a lawyer who raised at least $500,000 and worked at his family’s business, the Oreck Corp., seller of Oreck vacuum cleaners, until the company was sold in 2003. He has been nominated for ambassador to Finland.
Altogether, Mr. Obama’s ambassador nominees and their families raised at least $4 million for Mr. Obama’s presidential run and another $1.6 million for his inauguration, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. One notable exception was Mr. Obama’s pick for ambassador to China - former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican who raised funds for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential run against Mr. Obama.
Only in America
According to the Foreign Service Act of 1980, “contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor” in the appointment of ambassadors.
The American Foreign Service Association, which represents career foreign service workers, cites the act in asking Mr. Obama to reduce the percentage of political appointees in the diplomatic ranks from 30 percent to 10 percent.
“That would allow a select number of distinguished citizens to go out as envoys, while ending the unchecked spoils system under which scores of political activists are tapped for critical national security positions for which they are unqualified,” association spokesman Tom Switzer said.
The organization has been concerned about the appointments for years. In a 2006 article for the association’s newsletter, the group’s acting president, Steve Kashkett, called the practice an example of “the great American patronage system.”
In a report called “Checkbook Diplomacy,” the Center for Public Integrity traced the practice of presidents sending political supporters overseas all the way back to Andrew Jackson in the 1830s.
While noting that many excellent ambassadors have been among the political appointees, the center found abuses as well. The center quoted President Nixon as saying, “My point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must give at least $250,000. … The contributors have to be, I mean, a big thing.”
• Jim McElhatton can be reached at email@example.com.
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