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Report: Obama Big-Money Donors Got Plum Posts

Jun 20, 2011
Originally published on June 20, 2011 3:31 pm

President Obama and the first lady attended a total of six fundraising events last week, half of them small gatherings with top-dollar donors. They also got a reminder of what comes with reliance on high rollers: An unflattering analysis of how many big givers in 2008 wound up with jobs in the administration.

The analysis, which comes from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, examined the 2008 Obama backers who were also bundlers — givers who solicit money from other supporters.

"We found that nearly 200 of the bundlers had obtained administration posts for themselves or their spouses," said Fred Schulte at the Center for Public Integrity, one of three reporters who worked on the project.

He said the jobs the bundlers got ran the gamut: ambassadorships, positions on advisory boards that help make policy, jobs at the Department of Justice, Federal Communications Commission and other federal agencies.

Bigger bundlers did better. In the top tier, each bundler delivered at least $500,000 in contributions to the campaign. Eighty percent of them went into the administration, often as ambassadors.

White House Response

When the Center for Public Integrity released the report last week, critics were quick to recall how candidate Barack Obama had attacked lobbyists and special interests in his February 2007 announcement speech.

"They write the checks and you get stuck with the bill," Obama said at the time. "They get the access while you get to write a letter. They think they own this government, but we're here today to take it back."

White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to brush off the report.

"The fact that individuals who have been appointed also supported the president is hardly a story," he said.

When reporters pressed him, he defended the hires.

"Being a supporter does not qualify you for a job or guarantee you a job," he said. "But it does not disqualify you, obviously."

Past Presidents' Record

It's hardly breaking news that presidents reward their financial backers.

President George W. Bush looked after members of his Pioneers and Rangers bundling teams. President Clinton touched off a scandal with his favors to big donors. President George H.W. Bush gave appointments and policy considerations to his Team 100 big donors.

It's also not news that a presidential candidate would count heavily on big donors and bundlers, especially as a campaign got rolling.

In fact, for all the attention given to Obama's small contributors in 2008, those who gave $200 and less accounted for just half as much as those who gave $1,000 or more — the kind of donors who are sought out by bundlers.

"It's likely that he [Obama] raised every bit as much from bundlers as he did from small donors," said Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University, which number-crunched the campaign finance reports.

Transparency Initiatives

Everything about the Obama campaign fundraising was larger than life: more small donors than any previous campaign; more big donors and more bundlers, too.

"He's relying on big-money folks like nobody's ever done so before," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group.

The group has tracked online presidential bundlers for three elections.

Holman points out that Obama has taken steps to avoid some of Washington's power-and-money issues. Obama wouldn't take campaign money from PACs or lobbyists. And once in office, he ordered up tough revolving-door restrictions and more transparency rules.

"Even though he is being run largely by money, he is making a massive effort to try to avoid any serious conflicts of interest," Holman said.

The efforts seem to be making a difference, at least so far. When the cable news shows run those slo-mo shots of administration figures in trouble, they have yet to include any high-rolling bundlers from the campaign.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Peter Overby reports big donors in the 2008 campaign often wound up with plum jobs in the administration.

PETER OVERBY: The analysis comes from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. It looks at the 2008 Obama backers who were also bundlers. In the business, that's what they call givers who solicit money from other supporters.

FRED SCHULTE: Well, we found that nearly 200 of the bundlers had obtained administration posts for themselves or their spouses.

OVERBY: That's Fred Schulte, at the Center for Public Integrity. He's one of three reporters who worked on the project. He said the jobs the bundlers got ran the gamut.

SCHULTE: Ambassadorships to foreign countries, to positions on advisory boards that help make policy, to staff jobs in places like the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission, and other federal agencies.

OVERBY: When the Center for Public Integrity released the report, critics were quick to recall how Candidate Obama had attacked lobbyists and special interests in his February 2007 announcement speech.

BARACK OBAMA: They write the checks and you get stuck with the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD RESPONSE)

OBAMA: They get the access while you get to write a letter. They think they own this government, but we're here today to take it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

OVERBY: White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to brush off the report.

JAY CARNEY: The fact that individuals who have been appointed also supported the president is hardly a story.

OVERBY: When reporters pressed him, he defended the hires.

CARNEY: Being a supporter does not qualify you for a job or guarantee you a job. But it does not disqualify you, obviously.

OVERBY: It's also not news that a presidential candidate would count heavily on big donors and bundlers, especially as a campaign got rolling. In fact, for all the attention given to Mr. Obama's small contributors in 2008, those who gave $200 or less accounted for just half as much as those who gave $1000 or more - that is, the kind of donors who are sought out by bundlers.

MICHAEL MALBIN: It's likely that he raised every bit as much from bundlers as he did from small donors.

OVERBY: Everything about the Obama campaign fundraising was larger than life; more small donors than any previous campaign, more big donors and more bundlers too.

CRAIG HOLMAN: He's relying on big money folks like no one has ever done so before.

OVERBY: That's Craig Holman of Public Citizen. The liberal advocacy group has tracked presidential bundlers for three elections now on a web site called WhiteHouseForSale.org. Holman points out that Mr. Obama has taken steps to avoid some of Washington's power and money issues. He wouldn't take campaign money from PACs or lobbyists. And once in office, he ordered up tough revolving door restrictions and more transparency rules.

HOLMAN: Even though he's being, you know, run largely by money, he is making a massive effort to try to avoid any serious conflicts of interest.

OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.