By Jordy Yager - 09/17/11 08:55 PM EDT
Watchdog groups are ramping up pressure on President Obama’s transparency record after two potential scandals involving his administration’s use of political pressure to help donors secure federal money.
The two emerging scenarios appear to bear a tinge of cronyism for Obama’s administration and could severely hurt the president in his 2012 reelection bid if he doesn’t move to strengthen transparency and whistleblower protection laws, according to political experts and the watchdog groups.
Obama campaigned vigorously on the promise of transparency and has painted his as one of the most transparent administrations.
And then there's the accusation this week by The Daily Beast that the administration pressured a military officer to alter his testimony before Congress about the wireless company, LightSquared, so that it was more in line with the White House’s political policy on broadband expansion. There has been a steady stream of criticism from the Department of Defense that the company’s technology could interfere with its Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
Both companies have executives who have given large amounts of money to Obama in recent years -- although LightSquared pointed out that its top executives have given to members of both parties.
The Sunlight Foundation said it was “disappointed” in Obama for not delivering a more transparent government. If he had taken steps to ensure an open process with each of these instances, he would not find himself facing the level of congressional scrutiny and potential scandal that he is now, said Bill Allison, the editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation.
“A lot of times what drives the call for more transparency are situations like this where you clearly had information that were more people aware of it the general public, members of Congress, the various concerns of White House staff about the quality of the loan to Solyndra and about the effect of the wireless spectrum on military operations,” said Allison.
“Clearly if that had been vetted or aired at the time these decisions were made, you might have had different decisions coming out of the White House.”
The White House has denied wrongdoing in regard to both Solyndra and LightSquared.
Obama has a mixed track record with regard to fulfilling his promises on ethical and transparent government. According to PolitiFact, of the 17 promises he made - such as releasing presidential records and increasing protection for whistleblowers - he has kept five, broken three, compromised on two, and three are stalled, while 4 are “in the works.”
Stephen Kohn, the executive director for the National Whistleblowers Center, said that while Obama has strengthened private sector whistleblower rights, the protections for federal employees are still minimal.
“The rights of people to blow the whistle in the private sector on these types of violations has been improved,” said Kohn. “However, in regard to government employees blowing the whistle, there has been zero progress and their rights are pathetic and extremely weak.”
If a federal employee overseeing the Solyndra case had been fired for expressing their concerns about the company’s financial strength, he said, that employee would not have been able to take the case because they would have surely lost any claims of retaliation in court. But Kohn said there is a silver lining to a scandal of this ilk.
“If these accountability scandals get more intense there will be pressure on him to make the fix,” said Kohn.
And Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is considering whether to have his powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigate the LightSquared instance, as Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) has requested.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist who runs the Feehery Group communications firm, said Obama could find himself in trouble as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has taken heat recently over a decision to require immunization for young girls in his state in light of his very close ties to the drug’s manufacturer. But those charges of “crony capitalism” won’t be of any use for Obama, said Feehery.
“If you’re going to put yourself out there as purer than snow, you’re going to take some hits,” he said.
“If Perry gets the nomination for Republicans, it’s going to be awfully hard for the Obama administration to start attacking him when they’ve got some of the same problems. If they start accusing Perry of cronyism, they’d know of what they speak.”