The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Unobtainium’ and the blurry lines of campaign finance law

Two hours that President Obama spent on a Sunday afternoon last fall with a dozen of his top supporters illustrates how easily a candidate can buttress the efforts of a purportedly independent super PAC – even a politician as disdainful of such outside groups as Obama.

The intimate Oct. 7, 2012, gathering, held at the home of DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and attended by former president Bill Clinton, was described at the time by a campaign spokeswoman as “a thank you event for a small group of donors.”

However, in “Double Down,” a new book about the 2012 race, authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann write that the event was actually a function for Priorities USA Action, a super PAC backing Obama’s reelection.

Katzenberg, an early and generous patron of Priorities USA, “pitched the lunch to invitees as a once-in-a-lifetime experience – what he called ‘unobtainium,’ ” the authors write. “He recommended that they donate $1 million to Priorities, and bagged three checks in that amount just the Friday before.”

To attend an official Priorities USA event would have been a substantial about-face for Obama, a vociferous critic of outside groups. The president was reluctant to endorse the efforts of the super PAC when it was launched by two of his former White House aides. And when he finally gave the group his blessing, campaign manager Jim Messina stressed in a blog post that Obama, Vice President Biden and first lady Michelle Obama would steer clear of Priorities events.

The White House said this week that the gathering at Katzenberg’s home was an official Obama for America campaign event, not a super PAC event.

“As was widely reported at the time, President Clinton joined President Obama at a thank you event for the campaign’s supporters,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Priorities USA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

An examination of the guest list detailed in “Double Down” shows how hard it is to separate the worlds of a campaign and a super PAC. Most of those in attendance were generous donors to both Obama’s reelection committees and Priorities USA.

There was not a clear pattern of contributions to the super PAC around the time of the event suggesting that an entry fee was required.

Three of those at Katzenberg’s home that day — LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus – each did gave the super PAC $1 million Oct. 5, two days before the event.

Other guests were Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, who gave Priorities $2 million that June, and producer Steven Spielberg, who donated $1 million in late September.

But participants also included tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, actor-producer Seth MacFarlane and Google chief Eric Schmidt – none of whom ever gave to the super PAC.

Either way, Obama was on safe legal ground by taking part in the confab. While super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their strategy with candidates or official parties, the Federal Election Commission has said that candidates can still appear at super PAC events.