President Barack Obama is using privileged access to one of America’s greatest landmarks to reward his most generous financial supporters in ways that Republicans Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum can’t match: More than 60 of Obama’s biggest campaign donors have visited the White House more than once for meetings with top advisers, holiday parties or state dinners, a review by The Associated Press has found.
The invitations to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which are a legal and established practice from incumbent presidents, came despite Obama’s past criticisms of Washington’s pay-for-access privileges and mark a reversal from early in the president’s term when donors complained that Obama was keeping them at arm’s length.
Once, when Obama was a candidate running against Hillary Rodham Clinton, his presidential campaign sharply noted that Clinton and her husband, President Bill Clinton, had invited David Geffen — whom Obama’s campaign said had raised $18 million for the Clintons — to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom. The AP found no evidence of Obama’s own donors sleeping overnight in the White House, but timestamps showing arrivals and departures on the government’s logs are incomplete for more than 1.7 million records.
The AP’s review compared more than 470 of Obama’s most important financial supporters against logs of 2 million visitors to the White House since mid-2009. It found that at least 250 of Obama’s major fundraisers and donors visited the White House at least once, being cleared for events like dinners or one-on-one meetings with senior advisers.
Earlier this month, the White House extended invitations to more than 30 of the president’s top fundraisers to an elaborate state dinner, where they mingled with celebrities and dined with foreign leaders on the South Lawn of the White House.
Other purposes for visits included one-on-one meetings with top West Wing staffers, such as former chief of staff Pete Rouse and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Those donors include so-called “bundlers” — supporters who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece for Obama’s re-election.
Obama’s campaign has said it would begin encouraging supporters to donate to the “super” political action committee supporting Obama, Priorities USA Action, to counterbalance the cash flowing to GOP groups. The decision drew rebukes from campaign-finance watchdogs and Republicans who said Obama flip-flopped on his prior stance assailing super PAC money. The group supporting Obama has raised $6.3 million so far.
Visitor-log details of some of Obama’s donors have surfaced in news reports since he took office. But the financial weight of super PACs and their influence on this year’s election have prompted renewed scrutiny of the big-money financiers behind presidential candidates — and what those supporters might want in return.
Many of the White House visits by donors came before the president embraced the big-money, fundraising groups he once assailed as a “threat to democracy” on the grounds they corrode elections by permitting unlimited and effectively anonymous donations from billionaires and corporations. Obama was once so vocal about super PACs that, during his 2010 State of the Union speech, he accused the Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United decision of reversing a century of law that would “open the floodgates for special interests.” But the success of Republicans raising money changed the stakes.
Top donors to the super PAC supporting Obama, like Chicago investment manager John W. Rogers Jr. and Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, gave more than $150,000 combined to Priorities USA Action, according to finance reports, while also making repeated trips to the White House.
Rogers is a longtime Obama friend who contributed $50,000 in January — nearly all the money the super PAC collected the entire month. Rogers was selected by the administration in October 2010 to head a financial advisory council, and visited the White House more than two dozen times since Obama took office, including one-on-one meetings with former chief of staff Bill Daley and Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser. Two weeks before Rogers’ contribution in January, Obama’s campaign paid his firm, Ariel Investments, $600 for “event site rental,” according to finance reports. An Obama campaign spokeswoman said the event was for a campaign retreat; a spokeswoman for Rogers did not follow up to repeated phone calls and emails from the AP seeking comment.
Other donors who visited the White House, either before they gave money to support Obama or afterward, include:
—Lenny Mendonca, a director of consulting firm McKinsey & Co., gave $50,000 to Priorities USA Action in November 2011, according to records submitted to the Federal Election Commission. Visitor logs showed Mendonca met in June 2011 with Carl Shapiro, one of Obama’s top economic advisors, and three months earlier with Melody Barnes, the president’s chief domestic policy advisor.
—Orin Kramer, a key Obama fundraiser who gave $15,000 to Priorities USA in October, attended White House events with Obama at least five times, according to visitor logs, plus his invitation to a state dinner March 14 honoring British Prime Minister David Cameron. His other visits included a smaller gathering in March 2011 that was described as a presidential meeting but records offered few details.
—Spielberg, another Obama supporter, donated $100,000 last July to Priorities USA — one of the group’s largest individual contributions. One month later, Spielberg attended a Rose Garden event with the president. He also has visited the White House at least three other times, including in March 2010 to screen a movie for the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
Through a spokeswoman, Mendonca declined to comment. Kramer told the AP the information obtained from the Obama administration was “completely inaccurate,” but did not deny he has visited the White House. “I help candidates because I think election outcomes matter,” Kramer said in an email.
The AP’s review excluded visits like White House tours available to the general public.
A White House spokesman did not fully respond to repeated requests from the AP for details of visits by Obama’s campaign donors, saying it was impractical to do so.
Obama so far has raised more than $120 million for his reelection effort — not counting millions more from the Democratic Party — an outsized figure compared with potential GOP rivals like Mitt Romney, who collected $74 million in checks through the end of February. That calculus may change as wealthy billionaires who have supported their favorite candidates this primary season may rally around the eventual Republican nominee.
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