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.
Among the examples it cited was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who wasn’t registered as a lobbyist although he brought in millions of dollars for lobbying firms Alston & Bird and DLA Piper as a “policy adviser.” He donated the maximum $5,000 to Mr. Obama’s re-election bid.
The president’s second term got off to an awkward ethical start when he reversed his first-term pledge about refusing to accept corporate donations for his inaugural festivities. Among the corporate donors who funded Mr. Obama’s second inaugural celebrations were AT&T Inc. ($4.6 million), Microsoft Corp. ($2.1 million), Boeing Co. ($1 million), Chevron Corp. ($1 million), Genentech Inc. ($750,000), Deloitte LLP ($500,000), FedEx Corp. ($500,000) and Coca Cola Co. ($430,000.) Federal Election Commission records revealed that $18 million of the $43 million raised by Mr. Obama for his second inauguration came from corporations, unions and interest groups.
Watchdog groups criticized the decision and said Mr. Obama had abandoned his principles. The presidential inaugural committee defended the corporate donations by saying campaign donors were tapped out, and it would have been difficult otherwise to raise the money needed for the parade, inaugural balls and other events.
Mr. Schultz said the Obama administration “has across the board set the toughest ethics standards in history, including a bold commitment to transparency.”
“As a result, we have reduced special-interest influence and promoted merit-based decision-making,” he said.
Nevertheless, the strong link remains between fundraising and nominations. Government watchdogs say the president’s rewards to campaign supporters show no sign of abating.
In mid-June, when Mr. Obama nominated three top campaign fundraisers to ambassadorships, the editors at Political MoneyLine said the “long-standing presidential tradition of rewarding fundraisers and contributors with ambassadorships has continued politics as usual” under Mr. Obama.
Rufus Gifford, who was Mr. Obama’s chief fundraiser in 2012 and was the campaign’s liaison to the gay community, was appointed as ambassador to Denmark. John Emerson, who was co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Southern California finance committee, was nominated by Mr. Obama to become ambassador to Germany. HBO executive James Costos was nominated to become U.S. ambassador to Spain.
If Mr. Costos and Mr. Gifford are confirmed by the Senate, they will be the second and third openly gay U.S. ambassadors to NATO countries. The only other openly gay ambassador to a NATO country was James Hormel, who served in President Clinton’s second term as ambassador to Luxembourg.
Mr. Gifford served most recently as finance chairman of the president’s inaugural committee. Mr. Costos’ partner, White House decorator Michael Smith, was responsible for the makeover of the Oval Office in 2010.
Mr. Emerson was a top fundraiser for Mr. Obama in 2012 who organized events that raised more than $4 million from entertainment industry celebrities such as George Clooney.
Ms. Krumholz said it’s all a result of the “extraordinary machine” that Mr. Obama has developed for political fundraising.
“You do not wage a financially viable campaign without hundreds of millions of dollars,” she said. “There is far greater reliance on the bundling operation, and I don’t see any evidence or reason to be hopeful that the donor rewards that are attendant to this system will diminish anytime soon. They go hand in hand.”