- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

Newly released visitor logs show that more than two dozen of President Obama’s top-tier campaign fundraisers visited the White House during his first nine months in office, providing more evidence of the administration’s quiet effort to reward donors with VIP access including private briefings with presidential advisers.

The records, released in response to a request from The Washington Times, show that one Florida trial lawyer scored an Oval Office meeting with the president. A Hollywood music executive who now serves as the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas attended two private receptions, including one in the White House residence. A Maryland health care executive and his wife received a private White House tour.

Other records released by the White House showed that the president’s top aides have met frequently with lobbyists and major players in the health care overhaul debate.

The continued presence of both donors and lobbyists on White House logs appears to contradict a key component of Mr. Obama’s often-repeated campaign pledge to change Washington.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama acknowledged that 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.

White House aides called the release of the visitor logs a reminder of Mr. Obama’s commitment to a transparent government, in which the public is able to see who has the ear of the president and top aides, and evaluate his approach based on that knowledge.

Spokesman Benjamin LaBolt noted that most of the logs requested by The Times “were for administration officials who attended meetings at the White House as part of their daily work.”

The Times’ request covered the more than three dozen top bundlers - the people who tapped their networks of friends and associates for contributions - who the Obama campaign identified as having raised more than $500,000. Indeed, many of those key fundraisers took key jobs in Mr. Obama’s White House.

Julius Genachowski, a major bundler and frequent visitor, now chairs the Federal Communications Commission. Howard Gutman, a Washington lawyer, bundler and White House guest, is now ambassador to Belgium. Matthew W. Barzun, another top fundraiser, is now ambassador to Sweden.

Other top bundlers serve in advisory roles. Robert Wolf, the UBS Americas bank executive who headed up Mr. Obama’s New York fundraising effort and who golfed with the president on Martha’s Vineyard, made more than a dozen visits to the White House, the logs show.

By historic standards, frequent visits by both top donors and lobbyists are nothing out of the ordinary for the White House. Both groups have long played important roles in providing both political and policy advice to past administrations.

But the access granted to major fundraisers has in the past led to questions about undue influence, most notably in 1997. That’s when it was discovered that President 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.

Mr. Obama vowed to be different when he was running for the presidency.

“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.”

During his campaign and since, Mr. Obama has taken pride in his campaign’s flourishing small-dollar fundraising program, which tapped millions of grass-roots supporters for modest contributions.

But he had an equally robust major-donor program, which was modeled in part after the Ranger and Pioneer programs created by President George W. Bush to track and reward those who could reach out to the largest number of people for maximum-dollar contributions.

Those bundlers have not only been rewarded with White House access, but also special private briefings with top presidential aides, as The Times first reported in October.

Mark Gilbert, a Florida businessman who raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Obama, and whose name also appeared in the newly released logs, described the program as a perk for those most interested in the administration’s efforts. He said he gets regular e-mails from the White House on topics that interest him - in his case, economic policy - and he occasionally joins special conference calls for Mr. Obama’s political supporters. The calls are frequently timed to follow up on a major news development out of the White House.

“Any time something major takes place, they follow it up with a conference call with someone who was involved with the policy decision,” Mr. Gilbert said. “Anything that has to do with the Treasury, I get an e-mail.”

Democratic Party officials told The Times in October that there is “absolutely no correlation” between fundraising and attendance at White House events.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that people that support the president do go to functions at the White House and have other access, but there are many, many more Americans who attend events and town halls and other things at the White House every single day,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.

But a reminder of the divide between small-dollar donors and the top bundlers was on full display earlier this week. When the president hosted his first state dinner, more than a dozen seats were occupied by the bundlers, including the woman who chaired Mr. Obama’s finance effort, billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker, and the woman who now oversees the DNC’s finance efforts, Jane Stetson, an heiress to the IBM fortune.

Among the more than 500 new records released were also logs, requested by the Associated Press, which showed the president’s top aides have met frequently with lobbyists, including George Halvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Health Plans; Scott Serota, president and CEO of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association; Kenneth Kies, a Washington lobbyist who represents Blue Cross/Blue Shield; Billy Tauzin, a former Republican congressman from Louisiana who now heads PhRMA, the drug industry lobby; and Richard J. Umbdenstock, chief of the American Hospital Association.

The AP reported that the records show a broad cross-section of the people most heavily involved in the health care debate, weighted heavily with those who want to overhaul the system. Among them were Dr. Eliot Fisher, a Dartmouth health researcher who has estimated that nearly one-third of health care dollars are wasted on unneeded services, and Dr. David Himmelstein of Harvard Medical School, who is among the top advocates of a single-payer health care system.

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