- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2009

During his first nine months in office, President Obama has quietly rewarded scores of top Democratic donors with VIP access to the White House, private briefings with administration advisers and invitations to important speeches and town-hall meetings.

High-dollar fundraisers have been promised access to senior White House officials in exchange for pledges to donate $30,400 personally or to bundle $300,000 in contributions ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, according to internal Democratic National Committee documents obtained by The Washington Times.

One top donor described in an interview with The Times being given a birthday visit to the Oval Office. Another was allowed use of a White House-complex bowling alley for his family. Bundlers closest to the president were invited to watch a movie in the red-walled theater in the basement of the presidential mansion.

Mr. Obama invited his top New York bundler, UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf, to golf with him during the president’s Martha’s Vineyard vacation in August. At least 39 donors and fundraisers also were treated to a lavish White House reception on St. Patrick’s Day, where the fountains on the North and South Lawns were dyed green, photos and video reviewed by The Times and CBS News also show.

TWT INTERACTIVE: Bowling for dollars at the White House

Presidential aides said there has been no systematic effort to use the White House complex to aid fundraising, though they acknowledge the DNC has paid for some events at the presidential mansion.

Many guests at the White House not only had fundraising connections, but also have personal friendships with the president, Mr. Obama’s aides said.

“Contributing does not guarantee a ticket to the White House, nor does it prohibit the contributor from visiting,” said Dan Pfeiffer, deputy White House communications director.

The White House’s response: White House touts ethics in rewards for fundraisers

“This administration has across the board set the toughest ethics standards in history. As a result, we have reduced special-interest influence over the policymaking process to promote merit-based decision-making,” he added.

But veteran Washington observers say the Obama-era perks still carry shades of the so-called “donor maintenance” programs of past administrations, when Bill Clinton rewarded fundraisers with White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and George W. Bush invited “Pioneers” to Camp David or his Texas ranch.

And the donor access raises questions about the fervor of Mr. Obama’s stated commitment to clean up what he once called the “muddy waters” of Washington, where political cash is exchanged for access, ethics experts said.

“Once you start trading money for access, you set up a situation where donors eventually say, ‘Well, actually I have another favor to ask,’” said Scott Thomas, a former Democratic appointee to the Federal Election Commission.

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“It starts setting up that relationship. If you help with the money, we’ll do something nice for you. And that is a slippery slope.”

Democratic Party officials told The Times 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,” DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.

Only select members of the public, however, were provided access to a series of invite-only briefings by senior administration officials organized by the DNC.

Over the summer, for instance, one of Mr. Obama’s deputy chiefs of staff, Jim Messina, flew to Los Angeles and San Francisco to provide in-person briefings to a small collection of top donors to explain the administration’s plan for tackling health care legislation and counter the rising tide of opposition at town-hall meetings. In another, a group was briefed by one of Mr. Obama’s top economic advisers, Austan Goolsbee.

And festive events at the White House, such as parties thrown to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and July Fourth, were underwritten in part or in full by the DNC. Guests lists for those functions have not been made public.

Menu for access

The DNC has presented a menu of exclusive access opportunities to top givers, according to internal DNC documents provided to potential donors and obtained by The Times.

Top-tier donors gain membership to the DNC’s National Finance Committee or to the ultra-exclusive National Advisory Board, both of which meet four times a year, including this week at the Mandarin Hotel in Washington.

“They have an opportunity to meet senior members of the Obama Administration and senior members of Congress, and to hear from political analysts and policy experts,” according to the internal DNC documents.

Mark Gilbert, a Florida businessman who raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Obama, 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.”

Mr. Gilbert said the same practice was routine during the presidential campaign, and it helped Mr. Obama’s supporters feel like partners.

“I think they’re doing a very good job keeping people up to date, trying to keep people well-informed,” Mr. Gilbert said.

A senior party official involved in devising the DNC program, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the party took pains to design it so access to senior officials would be tightly controlled. Supporters would have the chance to meet party leaders. But the DNC wanted to rule out requests to pair donors with officials on specific issues. The paramount objective, the official said, was to avoid putting party leaders in the position of being asked to deliver on a specific request.

Rewards for those who supported the president’s 2008 campaign have been doled out in less formal ways. Two top bundlers, for instance, described invitations to bring their families to the private bowling alley at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Both spoke on the condition they not be named because they did not want to damage their relationship with the White House.

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The White House said such invitations could have come through any of scores of staff members, and could have occurred without any input from the president or his senior aides.

In interviews, top Obama donors described different methods for arranging such perks. Some said they contacted Reggie Love, the president’s personal assistant, to request appointments or White House access. Others said they arranged meetings through regional finance directors at the DNC.

“Many people know Reggie because they met him on the trail over the two years he traveled with the president, which is why they reach out to him, but that is not exclusive to donors,” a White House official said. The courtship of top donors is overseen by Rufus Gifford at the DNC in consultation with White House political director Patrick Gaspard, party officials confirmed. Their activities are not new to presidential politics. But they offer a contrast to the public face of the president’s fundraising operation, which has always focused on its efforts to reach out to grass-roots supporters who send small-dollar donations through the Internet.

Muddy waters

Presidents have run into trouble using the White House to entertain political donors in the past, most notably in 1997, when it was discovered that Mr. 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.

President George W. Bush rewarded his 246 “Pioneers,” who raised at least $100,000, with perks that included overnight stays at the White House and Camp David, parties at the White House and Mr. Bush’s Texas ranch, state dinners with world leaders and overseas travel with U.S. delegations to the Olympics and other events, according to a 2004 review by the Associated Press.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama acknowledged 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.

“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.”

Democratic officials said they think it is important to note that Mr. Obama’s efforts to reward major donors are, in their view, on a far smaller scale than those of any other recent president.

“I would say that from our reckoning, our research, there are fewer donors getting fewer things, whatever you may call them, from this White House than from any White House in memory,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

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Since taking office, Mr. Obama has pledged that his administration will be “the most open and transparent administration in history” and has agreed to make public the names of those who sign into White House visitor logs, though a request from The Times for logs that show visits from his top 45 bundlers has so far gone unfilled.

Requests for guest lists to various White House events, such as a recent cocktail reception surrounding the celebration of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ National Hockey League Stanley Cup victory or the Latin music concert last week, have also been denied repeatedly.

Doling out ambassadorships

The most traditional aspect of the Obama administration’s continued outreach to donors has involved the time-honored practice of doling out ambassadorships to his most prolific financial benefactors. The task of matching up bundlers to foreign posts was overseen by Chicago lawyer David Jacobson, who served during the campaign as the deputy to finance chairwoman Penny Pritzker, several of Mr. Obama’s ambassadors said in interviews.

Shortly after Mr. Obama’s election, Mr. Jacobson was assigned the title of special assistant for presidential personnel. From that perch, he approached top bundlers and asked them to provide him with their top six choices for foreign postings.

Mr. Jacobson eventually returned to most of the bundlers with word of their postings. For young music executive Nicole Avant, that meant the Bahamas. For veteran political fundraiser Alan Solomont, it was Spain. A request for comment from Mr. Jacobson was routed to the White House.

For a number of supporters who began the 2008 race in the camp of a rival candidate, there have been other rewards.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepared to lead a delegation to El Salvador to attend the inauguration of President Mauricio Funes, she invited one ambassador, two diplomats, three congressmen, and McAllen, Texas, construction company executive Alonzo Cantu. Mr. Cantu also happened to be a major fundraiser for her primary campaign. He later contributed to Mr. Obama’s general election bid.

Still others have been invited to sit on a wide array of presidential commissions and advisory panels. Several top bundlers, including Ms. Pritzker and Mr. Wolf, sit on the president’s Economic Advisory Board, which has been helping him navigate the nation’s financial crisis. This fall, top bundlers Andres Lopez and Abigail Pollak were tapped to join the Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Museum of the American Latino.

With many of the president’s top bundlers now serving in ambassadorships, and therefore unable to help with a 2012 re-election bid, the DNC has started the process of recruiting a new round of top givers.

The DNC began cultivating these donors this summer, when Mr. Obama’s health care legislation was facing strong opposition from vocal opponents at town-hall meetings. The president’s top political advisers took commercial flights to California, paid for by the DNC, for meetings with key donors in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Top White House advisers told about 25 DNC donors in Los Angeles to remember that Mr. Obama “has been counted down or out and surprised people” before, said one bundler who attended a California meeting, but spoke on the condition he not be named.

The most exclusive access to the president has been reserved for Mr. Obama’s closest friends, many of whom also served as donors and bundlers during his campaign. When the president hosted a Ramadan banquet at the White House, he invited three top fundraisers, Hasan Chandoo, Wahid Hamid and Lutfi Hassan. Mr. Chandoo and Mr. Hamid, who both raised between $100,000 and $200,000 during the campaign, had been college roommates of Mr. Obama’s.

Marty Nesbitt, who bundled between $50,000 and $100,000, and John Rogers, who bundled more than $500,000, have both spent time with Mr. Obama in the White House, including joining the president in the White House movie theater, which Mr. Obama’s aides said is nothing surprising.

As with past administrations, Democratic officials have made plain that the president views the access provided to close friends as something different from any sort of orchestrated program to reward political donors.

TWT INTERACTIVE: Bowling for dollars at the White House

“Many of the people mentioned in this story have been friends and associates of the Obamas for decades — including college roommates and family friends whose relationships predate and are separate from the president’s career in public service,” Mr. Pfeiffer said.

Also as with previous administrations, however, it can often be difficult to distinguish between a president’s friends and his financial backers.

Several of those interviewed said they only met Mr. Obama by virtue of their efforts to assist his Senate and presidential campaigns.

“No, they’re not all friends,” said Lanny Davis, a Washington Times columnist and a Democratic lawyer who helped the Clintons respond to allegations about Lincoln Bedroom guests back in the 1990s. “They are supporters of the Democratic Party who are generous with their financial support, and without them we would not be able to compete against our Republican opponents.”

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• Matthew Mosk can be reached at mmosk@washingtontimes.com.

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