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Obama nonprofit advocacy group reverses course on corporate donations

Reversing course after weeks of public pressure, the head of the new nonprofit organization formed to take over President Obama’s campaign operation announced Thursday that the group will not take donations from corporations as originally planned and will provide more transparency about its funding.

In an article posted Thursday on CNN.com, Jim Messina, chairman of Organizing for Action, detailed the changes, which will include disclosing the precise amount contributed by donors who give more than $250. While the organization will no longer accept corporate donations, it will still solicit contributions from labor unions.

Last month, Messina and others said in private meetings that they planned to solicit corporate funds and disclose donations using only broad monetary ranges, rather than specifying the amounts. The approach drew heavy criticism from campaign finance reform leaders who asserted that Obama was effectively reneging on his campaign pledge to clean up Washington’s big-money political culture.

Groups such as Organizing for Action, which are set up as 501(c)4 nonprofit social welfare organizations, raise unlimited funds and are not subject to Federal Election Commission disclosure rules. The approach has been used effectively to raise money and engage in politics by Crossroads GPS, the GOP-oriented group founded partly by strategist Karl Rove.

“We believe in being open and transparent,” Messina wrote Thursday, explaining the reversal. “That’s why every donor who gives $250 or more to this organization will be disclosed on the Web site with the exact amount they give on a quarterly basis. We have now decided not to accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors.”

The ban on donations from federal lobbyists and foreign nationals had been announced to donors and reported previously.

Advocates of campaign finance reform were appalled when the organization initially said it would accept corporate cash in unlimited amounts. Some remained critical even after Messina backpedaled Thursday.

“The actions . . . do not solve the fundamental problems created by President Obama’s involvement with OFA,” said Fred Wertheimer, a Washington lawyer and reform advocate who is president of the organization Democracy 21. “OFA remains an unprecedented entity that allows individual donors and bundlers to provide huge amounts of money to an arm of the presidency.”

The watchdog group Common Cause, which previously called on Obama to shut down the nonprofit organization, applauded the change but said it wasn’t enough.

“I’m pleased to see that the president’s associates have reconsidered their initial decision to solicit corporate contributions and sell access to the president through OFA and that they’ve pledged to make full and prompt disclosure of all gifts of $250 or more,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “But that’s really just a start.” He said OFA should push for campaign finance reform and impose caps on donors.

While corporations are out of the picture, wealthy individuals are not. OFA also has come under fire for offering supporters who raise $500,000 the opportunity to attend quarterly events with Obama.

In his article, Messina cast the group as an army of grass-roots volunteers, not a handful of rich donors.

Messina also said the group is not planning to help Democrats win office.

“We’ll mobilize to support the president’s agenda, but we won’t do so on behalf of political candidates,” Messina wrote in the article. Last month, however, Messina discussed elections in meetings with potential OFA donors who had the impression that the new group would be supporting key Democrats.

Another OFA official said Thursday that the policy change announced Thursday was initiated because “we wanted to reflect the views of our grass-roots volunteers and the president’s long-standing goal of reducing the influence of special interests over the political process.” The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Organizing for Action, launched in January, has already begun a six-figure online advertising campaign aimed at getting Republican lawmakers to support stronger background checks on gun purchases. The group also has rallied supporters around its concerns over the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

The organization plans to hold one of its first national meetings in Washington next month. While the event will include some meetings open to grass-roots organizers without financial means, others have been invited to a closed-door “Founders Summit” with admission set at $50,000 per person.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.

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