White House rebuts allegation that big donors get special perks

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 2:50 PM

What does being a top Democratic donor get you in Obama's Washington?

The White House fought back hard Wednesday morning against the suggestion by top Republicans that money can buy untoward access to his administration.

The charge from the chairman of the GOP came after a report in the Washington Times that the Democratic National Committee rewards its top contributors with perks that include small-group briefings with senior Obama administration officials, conference calls and other exclusive access to policymakers.

Two one-page fact sheets posted online Wednesday by the paper explain the benefits of membership in the DNC's National Advisory Board and its National Finance Committee.

Donors who give the maximum allowed by law to the party -- $30,400 -- or who bundle $300,000 from other contributors, gain membership into the exclusive groups.

"Together with the National Finance Committee, the National Advisory Board meets four times throughout the year in Washington, D.C. to discuss current issues, policies, and strategies," one of the documents says. "They have an opportunity to meet senior members of the Obama administration and senior members of Congress, and to hear from political analysts and policy experts."

Democratic and White House officials shrugged off the documents as part of normal "donor maintenance" that does not provide contributors with any quid pro quo. And they insisted that current donors are getting fewer perks than they did during Bill Clinton's term, when nights in the Lincoln Bedroom became controversial.

"The DNC routinely identifies appropriate opportunities for party supporters to meet their leaders in the administration and the Democratic congressional majority," DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said. "This is true for donors, grass-roots activists and others who are engaged and active on behalf of our party in different ways and who welcome the chance to meet their leadership."

The Washington Times story also noted the more informal perks of being a big-time fundraiser for the Obamas. Those included use of the bowling alley in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, one family's visit to the White House movie theater and a birthday visit to the Oval Office.

The Republican National Committee quickly followed up with an e-mail to reporters with the headline, "WELCOME TO RESORT OBAMA. President Sells Access To And Amenities Of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue To Highest Democrat Bidders."

"Bill Clinton turned the White House into a hotel and coffee shop," RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele said. "Now President Obama has turned the White House into a full-service resort complete with amenities for the highest Democrat bidder."

White House officials rejected that criticism. They noted that the use of the White House movie theater was by Eric Whittaker and his family, who have been friends with the president for years and often visit. Whittaker, a doctor, is also a donor.

The briefings by White House officials were routine, the sources said, and similar to those given by the same officials to non-donors. And they said they could find no evidence of the use of the nearby bowling alley but added that low-level staffers are regularly allowed to reserve the lanes for their friends and families.

"Many of the people mentioned in this story have been friends and associates of the Obamas for decades -- including college roommates and family friends whose relationships predate and are separate from the president's career in public service," White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said. "Given that nearly 4 million Americans donated to the campaign, it's no surprise that some who contributed have visited the White House, as have grass-roots organizers who didn't contribute financial support and people who actively opposed the president's candidacy."

Pfeiffer noted that Obama has agreed to open the White House visitors logs, starting with a release at the end of the year. And he insisted that contributions do not guarantee access.

"Contributing does not guarantee a ticket to the White House, nor does it prohibit the contributor from visiting," Pfeiffer said. "This administration has across the board set the toughest ethics standards in history. As a result, we have reduced special interest influence over the policymaking process to promote merits-based decision-making."

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