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April 14, 2012
White House Opens Door to Big Donors, and Lobbyists Slip In
By MIKE McINTIRE and MICHAEL LUO
Last May, as a battle was heating up between Internet companies and Hollywood over how to stop online piracy, a top entertainment industry lobbyist landed a meeting at the White House with one of President Obama’s technology advisers.
The lobbyist did not get there by himself.
He was accompanied by Antoinette C. Bush, a well-connected Washington lawyer who has represented companies like Viacom, Sony and News Corporation for 30 years. A friend of the president and a cousin of his close aide Valerie B. Jarrett, Ms. Bush has been to the White House at least nine times during his term, taking lobbyists along on a few occasions, joining an invitation-only forum about intellectual property, and making social visits with influential friends.
At the same time, she and her husband, Dwight, have donated heavily to the president’s re-election effort: Mr. Bush gave $35,800 on the day of his wife’s White House meeting last year, and Ms. Bush contributed the same amount a month later. In November, they hosted a $17,900-a-plate fund-raiser at their home, where Mr. Obama complained that the nation’s capital should be more “responsive to the needs of people, not the needs of special interests.”
“That is probably the biggest piece of business that remains unfinished,” the president said, as about 45 guests dined under a backyard tent.
Although Mr. Obama has made a point of not accepting contributions from registered lobbyists, a review of campaign donations and White House visitor logs shows that special interests have had little trouble making themselves heard. Many of the president’s biggest donors, while not lobbyists, took lobbyists with them to the White House, while others performed essentially the same function on their visits.
More broadly, the review showed that those who donated the most to Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party since he started running for president were far more likely to visit the White House than others. Among donors who gave $30,000 or less, about 20 percent visited the White House, according to a New York Times analysis that matched names in the visitor logs with donor records. But among those who donated $100,000 or more, the figure rises to about 75 percent. Approximately two-thirds of the president’s top fund-raisers in the 2008 campaign visited the White House at least once, some of them numerous times.
The reasons someone might have gained access to the White House and made a donation are wide-ranging, and it is clear that in some cases the administration came down against the policies being sought by the visitors. But the regular appearance of big donors inside the White House underscores how political contributions continue to lubricate many of the interactions between officials and their guests, if for no other reason than that donors view the money as useful for getting a foot in the door.
Timing of Donations
Some of the donors had no previous record of giving to the president or his party, or of making donations of such magnitude, so their gifts, sometimes given in close proximity to meetings, raise questions about whether they came with expectations of access or were expressions of gratitude.
Dr. William C. Mohlenbrock, chairman of a health care data analysis firm, Verras Ltd., gave occasionally to political candidates over the years, mostly small amounts to Republicans. But last May he contributed the maximum allowable gift, $35,800, to the Obama Victory Fund, which benefits the president’s campaign and the Democratic Party. Later in the year, with help from a Democratic consultant, he landed a meeting with a top White House aide involved in the health care overhaul, but failed to persuade Medicare officials to require more health data collection as part of the new regulations.
Joe E. Kiani, who heads a medical device company, Masimo Corporation, stepped up his giving to Democrats last year as medical device makers campaigned unsuccessfully for the repeal of an excise tax imposed on the industry. Mr. Kiani had several meetings with White House officials last year, including two with lobbyists from his company and another with representatives from his industry’s trade association. In the midst of these gatherings, he donated $35,800 to the victory fund.
Administration officials insisted that donations do not factor into White House visits, and they cited steps taken to curb the influence of money in politics, including a ban on executive branch employees’ accepting gifts from lobbyists and on appointees’ lobbying the White House after they leave. Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, pointed out that Mr. Obama was the first president to release the visitor logs regularly, and added that “being a supporter of the president does not secure you a visit to the White House, nor does it preclude you from one.”
“The people selected for this article are contributors to the president,” Mr. Schultz said, “but this article excludes the thousands of people who visit the White House every week for meetings and events who did not contribute to the president, many of whom may not have even supported the president.”
‘How This Business Works’
Most donors, including Dr. Mohlenbrock and Mr. Kiani, declined to talk about their motivations for giving. But Patrick J. Kennedy, the former representative from Rhode Island, who donated $35,800 to an Obama re-election fund last fall while seeking administration support for a nonprofit venture, said contributions were simply a part of “how this business works.”
“If you want to call it ‘quid pro quo,’ fine,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to make sure I do my part.”
Mr. Kennedy visited the White House several times to win support for One Mind for Research, his initiative to help develop new treatments for brain disorders. While his family name and connections are clearly influential, he said, he knows White House officials are busy. And as a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said he was keenly aware of the political realities they face.
“I know that they look at the reports,” he said, referring to records of campaign donations. “They’re my friends anyway, but it won’t hurt when I ask them for a favor if they don’t see me as a slouch.”
Others, like Ms. Bush, rejected the notion that their donations were tied to access. Her husband said it was a coincidence that his contribution last May — made at a Democratic fund-raiser — came on the same day his wife was at the White House. And Ms. Bush noted that most of her meetings occurred before she made her donation in June. She added that as a longtime lawyer with the firm Skadden Arps, it should not be surprising that her work would occasionally take her to the White House.
“Communications law is what I do for a living,” Ms. Bush said. “Yes, I’m an Obama supporter, but in the end I’m a communications law expert. I had the same clients in the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration.”
Although those in office invariably deny it, the notion that access is available at a price is a well-founded reality of Washington. Memorably, President Nixon was caught on tape remarking that $250,000 should be the minimum donation for an ambassadorship. The Clinton White House offered major donors coffees with the president or sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. More recently, Republicans in Congress have raised questions about whether Democratic donors who invested in the solar energy company Solyndra and other troubled firms influenced the administration’s support of those businesses, pointing to White House visits and other official contacts. The administration denies there was any wrongdoing.
At a minimum, it is standard for administrations to recognize generous supporters with sought-after invitations to special events. The Obama White House logs are filled with the names of donors welcomed for St. Patrick’s Day receptions, Super Bowl parties and concerts. Last year, several major Democratic donors rounded out the guest list for a film screening with the first lady.
But in addition to social events, business is also carried out in the White House and its executive offices. The logs suggest some Obama fund-raisers and donors have been trafficking in ties they forged to the administration, helping clients get a seat at the table.
When Los Angeles officials wanted White House backing for a program that would speed up local transit projects, they turned last spring to a California political operative, Kerman Maddox, a top Obama fund-raiser and party donor. “We thought he could help our outreach in Washington,” said Richard Leahy, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
In an internal memo justifying Mr. Maddox’s hiring, the authority wrote that he had “direct access to the Executive Oval Office” and cited his position on the Obama campaign’s National Finance Committee. Mr. Maddox’s company Web site prominently features photographs of him with the Obamas.
One day after the authority signed off on his contract, Mr. Maddox made a $10,000 donation to the Obama re-election effort; he donated an additional $6,000 in June. In August, Mr. Maddox landed a meeting for himself and the authority officials with Melody Barnes, then director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, one of several meetings the officials were able to get.
The administration had previously been supportive of Los Angeles County’s efforts to accelerate its transit projects, but the following month, Mr. Obama also announced, as part of his jobs package, a proposal to significantly expand a Transportation Department loan program. The plan, which has drawn bipartisan support, is something Mr. Maddox’s clients had sought. Mr. Maddox, soon donated an additional $11,250 to the victory fund. He said in an e-mail that his donations were tied to fund-raising events and had nothing to do with visiting the White House.
Noah Mamet, another veteran Democratic fund-raiser and consultant, emphasizes on his firm’s Web site that he and his partners “are not lobbyists.” Instead, they help their clients “strategically navigate the worlds of politics, philanthropy and business.” Mr. Mamet, who donated $35,800 last year, and his partners have visited the Obama White House more than a dozen times, including at least four occasions on which they accompanied clients to meetings with administration officials. Mr. Mamet declined to comment.
Lamell McMorris, a Chicago native and longtime Obama supporter who appears in White House visitor logs 20 times, runs a Washington consulting firm that, as recently as last year, was registered to lobby. He also operates a sports management company, and has taken clients like the football player Cam Newton and the New Jersey Nets guard Anthony Morrow to the White House for private tours. Mr. McMorris did not reply to requests for comment.
With many of these meetings, it is often difficult to discern what exactly was being discussed. Clues can sometimes be gleaned by looking at the positions and interests of other attendees — who often include lobbyists.
David Beier, who oversees government affairs at the pharmaceutical company Amgen, has had nearly a dozen meetings at the White House, according to the visitor logs. On a single day in February last year, Mr. Beier, Amgen’s chief executive, Kevin W. Sharer, and lobbyists from the Podesta Group, the firm led by the Democratic fund-raiser Tony Podesta, had four meetings with top White House officials, including Ms. Jarrett, Pete Rouse and Austan Goolsbee. Mr. Beier — who was registered to lobby for Amgen for 10 years until last year — donated $35,800 in January, his largest such contribution. The donation came two weeks after he and Mr. Podesta visited the White House for another meeting with an economic official.
Amgen declined to comment, but lobbying disclosure reports show that the company hired the Podesta Group to press the White House and Congress on Medicare coverage and reimbursement for drugs for end-stage renal disease, among other issues.
As for Ms. Bush, a former Senate staff member whose stepfather is the Democratic power broker Vernon E. Jordan Jr., she declined to comment on the nature of her visits. But the purpose of some of them can be inferred from the more detailed records of meetings she had around the same time with officials at the Federal Communications Commission. Those agency meetings — some of which included the same Sony and Viacom lobbyists whom she accompanied to the White House — were mostly about shaping regulations to discourage piracy of digital media.
She also helped Viacom fight an F.C.C. complaint that one of its Nickelodeon shows, Zevo-3, was little more than a vehicle for the show’s marketing partner, Skechers. Writing to the agency for Viacom, Ms. Bush argued that the cartoon show, which features characters with special powers who previously appeared in Skechers commercials, intentionally distances itself from the footwear Skechers sells.
“In particular,” she wrote, “the characters in Zevo-3 do not derive any powers from their shoes, do not go out of their way to refer to their shoes and do not indicate that their shoes bear any relation to their roles on the program.”
Kevin Quealy contributed reporting.