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Report of White House perks for donors stirs debate

Republicans are up in arms over a Washington Times article on the DNC's alleged fundraising program. Democrats say there was no wrongdoing.

October 29, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — A partisan tangle erupted Wednesday over a report that as part of a Democratic National Committee program to woo donors, the White House had met privately with major campaign contributors and approved perks that included invitations to White House events.

Republicans trumpeted an article in the Washington Times that cited internal Democratic documents showing that people willing to raise $300,000 for the 2010 midterm election would be entitled to meet with senior Obama administration officials and help shape policy.

A top White House aide, Jim Messina, traveled to Los Angeles and San Francisco to meet with Democratic contributors, along with grass-roots supporters of the president's agenda, the Democratic National Committee said Wednesday. His expenses were covered by the party. Another White House aide, Patrick Gaspard, has held similar meetings with Democratic contributors.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele issued a statement asking for an "immediate investigation looking into the degree and details of fundraising efforts between the White House and DNC, whether there was any quid pro quo offered to donors, and the names of White House officials who were involved in such activities."

The White House and Democratic National Committee downplayed the report.

"Given that nearly 4 million Americans donated to the campaign, it's no surprise that some who contributed have visited the White House -- as have grass-roots organizers who didn't contribute financial support and people who actively opposed the president's candidacy," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House's deputy communications director.

He said that some people mentioned in the Washington Times report as gaining access had known the Obamas as friends for decades, "separate from the president's career in public service."

One government watchdog group said that it was neither surprised nor especially troubled to learn that the White House had given special access and attention to top donors. More worrisome would be if the White House were promising specific policy actions in exchange for contributions, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"Is it in any way surprising that top donors get better treatment and more information than the rest of us? No," Sloan said.

The newspaper said that two people who had raised money received invitations to use the private bowling alley at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. (There is a separate one-lane alley in the White House that was built during the Nixon administration.)

An Obama aide suggested that bowling on the executive office grounds is hardly a coveted perk. Any member of the White House staff is free to invite visitors to bowl, he said.

"It is possible a contributor has bowled, but if it happened, it did not happen as part of any program or at the direction of the DNC or White House political operations," said the aide, who requested anonymity when discussing White House activities.

Reports of special treatment for campaign donors are potentially troublesome for the White House, given Obama's promise to uphold the highest ethical standards while running a transparent operation.

Apart from private meetings and golf outings, fundraisers also were invited to a White House reception on St. Patrick's Day, the Washington Times reported.

At a briefing Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked whether any donors had spent a night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Gibbs said that he wasn't aware of any such invitations.

In the Clinton administration, the White House invited some donors to overnight stays in the room.

The White House noted that it was breaking with past practice and releasing the names of all visitors to the White House, allowing Americans to judge for themselves whether donors are getting favored treatment.

Gibbs said that "the president believes strongly in transparency -- that people can determine . . . who's here, why they're here, and for what course of business."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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