Obama group selling White House access to rich donors, says watchdog

A nonpartisan watchdog group on Tuesday demanded President Obama shut down the nonprofit group built from his campaign organization, the latest voice in a growing chorus accusing the newly founded Organizing for Action (OFA) of selling access to the White House.

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“If President Obama is serious about his often-expressed desire to rein in big money in politics, he should shut down Organizing for Action and disavow any plan to schedule regular meetings with its major donors,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, in a statement. “Access to the President should never be for sale.”

Last week, the New York Times reported that the nonprofit group was offering donors access to quarterly meetings with Obama if they donated half a million dollars.

Smaller donations ensured face time with former White House and Obama campaign officials, including former campaign manager Jim Messina, now OFA’s chairman.

A spokesman for OFA refuted that report, saying that no donors had been promised access to the president.

The 501(c)(4) organization — an IRS classification that allows groups promoting "social welfare" goals tax-exempt status — also highlighted voluntary disclosure measures that the group had elected to enact.

"OFA was founded to support the president’s agenda and the engine of this organization is and will continue to be our grassroots engagement and support," said OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan.

"Unlike some other issue based groups, we have voluntarily elected to disclose all donors and will refuse donations from federally registered lobbyists. Supporters have shown interest in taking a part in OFA because they believe in the president's agenda, no one has been promised access to the president."

The Associated Press reported Monday that OFA had reached out to 50 top campaign donors who intended to raise at least half a million dollars this year.

According to a source who had been briefed on the ask, donors expect benefits similar to those granted during the campaign — including access to Obama and top White House officials — but had not been offered an explicit “menu” tying amounts to access.

Pressed on the fundraising campaign Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said access to the White House was not for sale — but hedged when asked directly if donors to the group would meet with the president.

"The fact is, there are a variety of rules governing interaction between administration officials and outside groups, and administration officials follow those rules. White House and administration officials will not be raising money for Organizing for Action, and while they may appear at appropriate OFA events, in their official capacities they will not be raising money," Carney said.

Common Cause said the arrangement would "extend and deepen the pay-to-play Washington culture that Barack Obama came to prominence pledging to end."

“President Obama’s backers should go back to the drawing board,” Edgar continued.

“The President may feel that he needs help from an advocacy organization outside the White House and the Democratic Party, but any group he creates should be fundamentally different from what we now see in Organizing for Action."

Staff at OFA say they hope to raise millions this year for efforts in support of the president’s agenda. Many key officials from the president’s reelection effort have landed at the new organization.

Last week, OFA launched its first ad buy, targeting 13 Republican lawmakers in a push to gather support for universal gun sale background checks.

At the White House, Carney insisted the group would not be treated any differently than other interest groups that regularly met with administration officials.

"Outside organizations that support [the president’s] agenda ... you know, administration officials can meet with them, including the president," Carney said.

The press secretary also stressed Obama's prior statements on campaign finance reform.

"The fact of the matter is the president has continually pressed for greater transparency in our political system," Carney said.

On Tuesday, Common Cause said that "at a minimum," the nonprofit Obama group should adopt the same donor restrictions and anti-corruption laws that political parties face.

"That means any group associated with the President should refuse all donations from lobbyists, corporations and unions, provide complete and prompt disclosure of all its donors and the amounts they contribute, and impose an annual limit of $32,400 on the amount of money it will accept from any individual or political action committee," Edgar said.

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