By Kevin Bogardus - 12/18/13 06:00 AM EST
The liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) this year promised corporate donors a chance to meet Hillary Rodham Clinton in return for a $250,000 donation, documents obtained by The Hill show.
The meeting never happened, though Clinton spoke at the anniversary gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium that was cited on the solicitation.
“None of the patrons were able to meet with Secretary Clinton but our board and trustees did meet with her at the event,” said Andrea Purse, a CAP spokeswoman.
“Patrons will also have the opportunity to meet the special guest speaker,” the document says, referring to the former secretary of State.
Purse said Clinton’s appearance added to the excitement for the 10th anniversary party and boosted attendance.
“It was our largest party ever,” Purse said.
The think tank’s offer of access to Clinton, the leading Democratic contender for the White House in 2016, highlights how CAP has blurred the line between think tank and party appendage since opening in Washington in 2003.
Top officials from across the administration have gone through a revolving door at CAP, making it an incubator for both policy and personnel.
John Podesta, CAP’s outgoing chairman, helped lead President Obama’s transition team, and is now headed back to the White House to help right the ship during Obama’s second term.
Neera Tanden, the group’s president, was a senior adviser to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She’s also a close ally of Clinton, having served as policy director for her presidential run in 2008.
The prominence of CAP in Democratic politics has made the group a fundraising juggernaut.
The group reported holding more than $42 million in net assets on its 2012 tax form — 90 percent of which comes from individuals and foundations, according to CAP. Donors in 2013 included Apple, Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Comcast/NBCUniversal, Eli Lilly, Facebook, GE, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Northrup Grumman, T-Mobile and Wal-Mart.
Critics say CAP’s business backing should call into question the think tank’s research, and have questioned whether some initiatives were pursued at the behest of donors. CAP rejects the pay-for-play accusations.
“This is an institution that tries to find the right answers,” Tanden told The New York Times. “It does not answer to the agenda of any of its individual supporters or corporations.”
The fundraising at CAP plays into a broader debate that is raging among Democrats about the influence of corporations on the party’s agenda.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last week demanded that Third Way, a centrist think tank, release its donor list after the group criticized the liberal senator’s push for action to reduce income inequality.
With Podesta’s announced move to the West Wing, CAP seized the moment to release its own donor list.
“They have seen the value of disclosing their donors. It gives the outsider the perspective of who is funding their advocacy. It doesn’t mean what the organization is saying is right or wrong, but it helps give a context,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
Aside from the corporate sponsorship, CAP revealed funding from leading K Street firms — many of which are staffed with former Democratic administration officials and congressional aides.
One Democratic lobbyist told The Hill that he has prodded his clients to give to the think tank because of its pull with the administration.
“Since the leaders of CAP are key influencers of the Obama administration, it helps to promote your access to those decision-makers because even if you can’t get access to the White House, Podesta can,” the lobbyist said.
Purse said the vast majority of lobby shops that are CAP donors contributed funding for the anniversary party. But she noted many of the think tank’s 10th anniversary events were open to the press, and said CAP has adopted a policy that “no staff or senior fellows are allowed to work as third-party lobbyists.”
K Street firms that have contributed to CAP include the Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG) and Downey McGrath Group, and both told The Hill they were proud to make a donation. Those firms are connected to CAP through Carol Browner, the former Obama adviser and ASG senior counselor who is a senior fellow for the group and is married to former Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.), chairman of Downey McGrath.
Another donor is The Glover Park Group, which is filled with veterans of the Bill Clinton administration.
“Lots of people at CAP are close to lots of people at the firm. Podesta is my friend, my colleague and was my boss in the White House,” said Joel Johnson, managing director of The Glover Park Group.
Johnson said contributions don’t influence the think tank, saying “they have always been open to ideas and perspectives but they make up their own minds about where they go on any particular issue.”
Ginny Terzano, who leads the Dewey Square Group’s communications practice, said her firm has given to the think tank for several years. She said CAP has “shined a light on progressive issues and successfully helped advance them in a town that doesn’t have the same track record.”
“We have many friends at CAP and we support the work they are doing,” said
David Di Martino with Blue Engine Message & Media, another donor.
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld also gave to the think tank. José Villarreal, a consultant for the firm, sits on CAP’s board.
“These donations allow the firm to participate in the activities of these institutions in order to more fully understand their policies and points of view, and thus to more properly advise our clients on a range of pertinent issues,” said an Akin Gump spokesman.
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, said cultivating think tanks like CAP has become an integral part of Washington’s influence culture.
“For a lobbyist, you might be talking to them one day at CAP and then at a drop of a hat, you may be talking to them in the administration,” McGehee said.