Obama allies defend OFA amid 'pay-to-play' access controversy

The nonprofit organization launched from the remnants of President Obama’s reelection campaign “should be celebrated, not criticized,” former White House adviser David Plouffe said Wednesday.

Plouffe was speaking at the “founders summit” for Organizing for Action, which aims to help Obama pursue his second-term agenda. Watchdog groups have scolded the group recently over claims it is selling access to the president.

Obama will speak to the group Wednesday night.

The man who helped Obama win two presidential elections said the group’s mission is to increase the public’s ability to influence policy debates.

“Just the notion that there's millions of Americans that want to be part of these debates that they've been closed off to in Washington, that in my mind is reason enough to march forward. This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized,” Plouffe told a group of about 60 donors, activists, and former campaign officials gathered in a small ballroom at the St. Regis hotel in Washington.

This week’s summit has brought a fresh round of complaints from campaign finance observers, who say the group is effectively selling influence.

“President Obama promised to change Washington, but these actions just perpetuate the pay-to-play politics he has repeatedly deplored,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 sent a letter to the White House questioning whether Obama's endorsement of the group violated rules governing the solicitation of gifts by the president.

The groups called for Obama to shut down the group and disavow any connections with it.

“The president’s involvement with OFA not only raises policy concerns relating to the purchase of influence over the administration, but also may cross the line in terms of the federal law banning the soliciting of gifts by any member of the executive branch, including the president,” J. Gerald Hebert, executive director at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. 

At the summit, OFA officials repeatedly emphasized that the group was designed as a grassroots organization to battle traditional lobbying efforts.

"There's been some confusion ... about what OFA is and what OFA isn't," said Jim Messina, who managed Obama's reelection campaign and is now OFA’s chairman.

"Organizing for Action is an issue advocacy group, not an electoral one. We will mobilize to support the president's legislative agenda, but we won't do so on behalf of political candidates. That's because the president has always believed that the special interests have undue influence over policymaking."

Jon Carson, OFA’s executive director, who will lead the group's Chicago office, also emphasized that the group was nonpartisan in nature.

"We are not a partisan organization. We are here to move this shared progressive agenda forward, and we will advocate to Democrats to move that forward, we will advocate to Republicans, we will form partnerships with whoever we need to," Carson said.

OFA officials hope that by emphasizing the organization's large donor and volunteer network, the group can shed the questions about access that have overshadowed its initial efforts.

A recent report in The New York Times claimed that donors who gave $500,000 would be guaranteed quarterly access to the president and that a $50,000 donation was required to attend the founder's summit.

Since then, officials for the group and at the White House have been besieged by questions about improper fundraising.

Both Messina and White House press secretary Jay Carney have since insisted there was no "set price" for access to the president.

Messina said that in the first two months since the organization's founding, the group had organized 1,200 watch parties for the State of the Union address, 100 events in 80 congressional districts touting the president's gun violence prevention plan, and counted 1.1 million volunteers that had in some way aided the group's effort, even if just through social media.

"Special interests shouldn't have a stranglehold on the policymaking process," Messina said.

The former Obama campaign officials said the weekend would be devoted to small, issue-oriented sessions designed to help supporters engage and mobilize grassroots supporters.

On Wednesday, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was to meet with donors to discuss environmental policy, and campaign analytics leader Dan Wagner will lead a discussion of tech policy.