Organizing for Action has given up corporate cash, but watchdog groups won’t be satisfied until the pro-Obama nonprofit is shut down for good.
The lobbying group, which was built from the remnants of President Obama’s reelection machine, has come under intense pressure from good-government advocates who say it’s ripe for corruption.
“We continue to call on President Obama to shut it down,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “President Obama should have never gotten into this in the first place, but it's not too late for him to correct this by having this entity shut down promptly.”
When Organizing for Action (OFA) was formed, the group reportedly planned to accept money from corporations.
But Jim Messina, the chairman of OFA and manager of Obama’s reelection bid, reversed course on Thursday and said the group would not accept money from corporations, foreign donors or registered lobbyists. He also promised that the group would disclose every contribution of $250 or more on a quarterly basis.
“Our first choice would be for them to shut it down and restart,” said former Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), president of Common Cause. “I would love to see them ask for $10 from friends and donors instead of $500,000.”
In response to the criticism, an OFA official said that the group would be a grassroots organization powered by Obama’s campaign supporters.
"Organizing for Action was founded so that the policy-making process will not be driven by the highest paid lobbyists on K Street, so that change will come from Americans organizing across the nation. Grassroots organizers worked too hard during the last six years to stop fighting for a middle class to get a fair shot," said the OFA official.
But it’s unlikely that OFA will be funded solely by small donations alone.
“We celebrate the fact that the group is not going to accept donations from corporations and lobbyists but what are the limits on large donors?” Edgar said. “Can [Obama] change the optics that it doesn't seem to be an organization dedicated to the wealthy and the super-wealthy?”
Lisa Rosenberg, a government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, said she would want “a complete open-book policy” from OFA before she would be satisfied that the group isn’t abetting corruption.
“If they want try completely opening up their books, disclosing every expenditure and every contribution in real-time, every 24 hours, then, yeah, maybe it would pass the smell test,” Rosenberg said. “I would want a complete open-book policy from them.”
Obama supporters inside and outside the administration have defended OFA in the face of intense criticism and reports that large donors could secure access to the president.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said access to the White House is not for sale after The New York Times reported that donors giving or raising $500,000 in contributions for OFA would each receive a seat at quarterly meetings with the president.
There is reportedly a fundraiser planned for OFA next week in Washington. In an appearance on CBS This Morning on Friday, Messina said the president might appear at that “founder’s summit.”
There are many of sources of cash, often allied with Democratic causes, that OFA could draw from. Union officials and fundraisers close to Hollywood donors have already said that they are open to cutting checks.
Wertheimer fears members of Congress will copy the model.
“It's not only dangerous for its potential corrupting influence but it's a terrible precedent,” Wertheimer said. “If it becomes legitimatized, we are going to see this show up on Capitol Hill. Members are going to create their own 501(c)(4) groups and with all the potential for corruption associated with large contributions.”
Watchdogs were aghast at OFA’s decision to form as a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that has been used to flood the political system with millions of dollars in secret “dark money.”
Often aligned with super-PACs, many 501(c)(4) non-profit groups funded television ads attacking candidates during the 2012 campaign.
Rosenberg said it would not be possible to know whether OFA is truly disclosing all its contributions.
“How do we know? There's no enforcement. There's no auditing mechanism. We just have to trust them and every other group that is organized like this,” Rosenberg said.
She noted that the group could be an active player in campaign season for the 2014 elections, despite promises to the contrary.
“They claim they're just going to be an issues-oriented organization and not get involved in politics,” Rosenberg said. “They could easily shift gears at that point and again there would be no ramifications.”
--This report was updated at 2:19 p.m.