President Obama In Hot Water Over Dinner With (Fundraising) Friends
Critics say dinner amounts to special access for political supporters
By Paul Steinhauser, Jim Acosta and Ashley Killough CNN
March 13, 2013President Barack Obama's having dinner with a bunch of friends. And that's where the controversy begins.
Wednesday evening the president addresses members of Organizing for Action, which was formed out of the grassroots wing of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign with a mission to promote Obama's policy agenda.
The president's appearance at a dinner will be the most controversial part of the two-day OFA meetings here in the nation's capital, which are being called the Founders Summit. OFA officials say the gathering will consist of a series of meetings with volunteers, neighborhood team leaders, former Obama campaign staff and donors who will shape the direction of Organizing for Action. They add that the summit will involve both large events and breakout sessions to think through strategy.
“OFA is a bottom up organization, and the Founders Summit is an opportunity to determine where we go from here -- how to sequence and execute the issue campaigns, expand the organization, and to see the agenda a majority of Americans voted for in November through,” says Ben LaBolt, the Obama re-election campaign national press secretary, who is advising OFA, which was created in January.
The dinner including the president comes amid criticism that the group, which is registered as a non-profit, social-welfare organization, plans to grant special access to the president for top OFA donors--a claim that Jim Messina, who steered the 2012 re-election campaign and is now the new group's national chairman, has attempted to rebuke.
While some have attacked OFA for being like other organizations that take large donations from anonymous wealthy contributors and corporations, Messina wrote in an op-ed Thursday for CNN.com that OFA does not “accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors.”
And while it doesn't have to disclose all of its donors, Messina said they “believe in being open and transparent” and pledged to identify donors who give more than $250 every quarter.
Last month, reports in the New York Times and Washington Post indicated supporters who raised or contributed more than $500,000 for OFA would be invited to attend meetings with the president four times a year. The group was formed in January from the remaining infrastructure of Obama's presidential campaign to help promote his policy agenda.
The reports quickly prompted questions of whether top donors could buy access to the president.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday shot down the notion that there was a price tag to meet with Obama or his staff. He said the president's appearance at OFA is just like any appearance he would make at other Democratic groups, such as the Democratic National Committee or the campaign organizations for the House and Senate.
“OFA was set up to promote the president's public policy agenda, and therefore as anyone would expect, the president would likely meet with representatives to discuss his agenda,” Carney said in the daily briefing. “Any notion that there's a price set for a meeting with the president is absurd and wrong.”
But he hasn't denied that top donors to the group could attend meetings with Obama or members of his staff. Carney also said Wednesday's night's dinner is similar to an address to the various campaign arms of the Democratic Party.
“The president speaks to the DCCC, DNC, DSCC. He'll speak to outside organizations that have policy agendas and that's entirely appropriate,” Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. But Carney said the agenda the president is pursuing, is “inherently bipartisan”
Non-partisan government watchdogs groups have raised questions about OFA's purpose, noting previously published reports indicating donors who make large financial contributions to the group would have access to the president.
“I mean I would question whether donors of 50 dollars will have meetings with the president. I imagine they won't,” said Lisa Rosenberg with the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based watchdog organization.
“It's all these donors of 50,000 or 100,000 (dollars) or more that get invited to these meetings, so clearly it is not entirely the grass roots organization in reaching out to the public that the founders claim it is,” Rosenberg added.
The dinner with OFA comes as the president negotiates with congressional Republicans on a grand bargain to fix the country's fiscal problems. Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNN they don't see the president's appearance at OFA as an opportunity to push Republicans on a grand bargain. But they hinted that the president will continue to travel around the country to make his case.