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Pro-Obama group reverses stance on corporate cash

March 07, 2013|By Matea Gold
  • Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina has responded to criticisms about OFA's fundraising.
Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina has responded to criticisms… (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The nonprofit advocacy group formed to bolster President Obama’s agenda has reversed its decision to accept corporate donations and promised more transparency about its contributors after fielding a torrent of criticism about its fundraising structure.

Jim Messina, chairman of Organizing for Action, announced the changes in an op-ed published Thursday on CNN.com.

“There has been some confusion about what Organizing for Action is and is not,” he wrote. “We'll mobilize to support the president's agenda, but we won't do so on behalf of political candidates. The president has always believed that special interests have undue influence over the policymaking process, and the mission of this organization is to rebalance the power structure.”

Launched in January by Messina and other top advisors to Obama, Organizing for Action has come under fire from campaign finance reform advocates and Republicans alike for forming as a 501(c)4 social welfare organization, allowing it to take unlimited, undisclosed donations.

News that the group was courting Obama campaign bundlers to raise $500,000 as part of a finance committee that could get quarterly meetings with the president only escalated the criticism. The conservative "super PAC" American Crossroads released a video earlier this week mocking the group as “Organizing for Acce$$."

The controversy threatened to overtake Organizing for Action just as it was ramping up its efforts to back Obama up on gun control and the federal budget fight.

The new policies announced by Messina were aimed at squelching the attacks. The organization, which already said it would decline donations from federal lobbyists and foreign donors, will now also refuse money from corporations. However, the group will still accept money from labor unions, according to spokeswoman Katie Hogan.

The organization also announced that it will disclose on a quarterly basis the name of every donor who gives $250 or more. The organization will post on its website the exact amount of each donation, rather than list contributors under a range of amounts, as previously planned.

Messina also pushed back against the suggestion that well-connected fundraisers or wealthy donors would get access to the president for their financial support.

“Whether you're a volunteer or a donor, we can't and we won't guarantee access to any government officials,” he wrote. “But just as the president and administration officials deliver updates on the legislative process to Americans and organizations across the ideological spectrum, there may be occasions when members of Organizing for Action are included in those updates. These are not opportunities to lobby -- they are briefings on the positions the president has taken and the status of seeing them through.”

That did not satisfy some of the most vehement critics of the new organization.

“The actions taken by Organizing for Action, while appropriate, do not solve the fundamental problems created by President Obama's involvement with OFA,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform group that has called for the president to shut down the nonprofit.

“OFA remains an unprecedented entity that allows individual donors and bundlers to provide unlimited amounts of money to an organization functioning as the arm of the Obama presidency,” Wertheimer said in a statement. “The unlimited amounts provided to OFA create opportunities for the individual donors and bundlers of these funds to buy corrupting influence over Obama administration policies and decisions. At a minimum, they create the appearance of such corrupting influence.”

The first major interplay between Organizing for Action and administration officials is set to come next week, when the group holds a “founders summit” in Washington for top donors and activists. Many expect Obama to make an appearance.

Messina cast the criticism of the new organization as backlash from special interests who “will no longer be unchallenged.”

He said that 964,000 people had already participated in Organizing for Action’s social media campaigns or the Day of Action it held Feb. 22 to mobilize support for background checks for gun purchases. For that effort, Obama supporters held more than 100 events in 80 different congressional districts, though few drew large crowds.

Still, Messina vowed that the group would be a force.

“For every lobbying group that puts a dollar on the air tearing down the president's agenda, an Organizing for Action volunteer will mobilize to counter it,” he wrote. “Instead of coming from the highest paid lobbyists on K Street, change will come from Americans organizing across the nation.”

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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