The Washington Post

The Influence Industry: Obama gives administration jobs to some big fundraisers

Big donors considering whether to work the phones raising money for President Obama’s reelection campaign might consider the fate of his 2008 bundlers. Many of them, it turns out, won plum jobs in his administration.

Obama campaigned on what he called “the most sweeping ethics reform in history” and has frequently criticized the role of money in politics. That hasn’t stopped him from offering government jobs to some of his biggest bundlers, volunteer fundraisers who gather political contributions from other rich donors.

More than half of Obama’s 47 biggest fundraisers, those who collected at least $500,000 for his campaign, have been given administration jobs. Nine more have been appointed to presidential boards and committees.

At least 24 Obama bundlers were given posts as foreign ambassadors, including in Finland, Australia, Portugal and Luxembourg. Among them is Don Beyer, a former Virginia lieutenant governor who serves as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

“In filling these posts, the administration looks for the most qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one.”

It is a time-honored tradition to reward political supporters with administration jobs, ambassadorships in particular. And Obama’s administration falls in line with the previous one in terms of the share of ambassadors who are political appointees rather than career Foreign Service officers.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980, however, states that “contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.”

Obama has appointed 59 ambassadors who were not career Foreign Service officers, and of those, 40 percent were bundlers.

“We think that the pendulum has swung a bit too far toward the patronage side of things,” said Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which represents career officers.

Not all political appointees have been bad ambassadors, Johnson said, but some have been less qualified, making them “costly in terms of advancing and protecting our interests and costly for the taxpayers.”

Obama has appointed campaign bundlers to a range of other jobs as well. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was a bundler, raising at least $50,000, as was Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who raised at least half a million dollars.

Obama hired bundler Steve Spinner as a liaison in the Energy Department. According to internal e-mails turned over in a congressional investigation, Spinner pressed for staff members to finalize a government loan for Solyndra, the now-shuttered solar company in which another campaign bundler was a major investor. Spinner, according to the Obama administration, did not make any decisions affecting Solyndra.

At least two of Obama’s bundler-ambassadors have had rocky tenures, according to reports from the State Department inspector general.

Nicole Avant, a music industry executive who raised at least $500,000, served as ambassador to the Bahamas until November.

The inspector general wrote that her tenure was part of “an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy.” The report said Avant spent roughly 40 percent of her time out of the country over a two-year period.

In an interview, Avant said that she inherited an embassy with management problems and that her travel was not out of line.

“Part of my job as a U.S. ambassador was to travel,” she said.

Avant is now helping the Obama campaign raise money from donors in Hollywood.

Luxembourg Ambassador Cynthia Stroum, a Seattle venture capitalist who raised $500,000 for Obama, was also criticized in an inspector general’s report, which said she sent her staff on a house-hunting mission, billed the government for bedding after being told she couldn’t and was “keenly interested” in the materials used for remodeling two bathrooms in her residence.

“Most employees describe the ambassador as aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating,” inspectors wrote of Stroum.

Stroum did not return messages seeking comment.

She was replaced by another bundler, Robert Mandell, a Florida real estate developer who raised between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama’s campaign.

Statistics kept by the American Foreign Service Association show that certain posts are favored for political appointees. In recent decades, many European capitals, for example, have been staffed by political appointees more than 70 percent of the time. A representative of the association called those the “well-known sumptuous posts.”

Staff writer Carol Leonnig contributed to this report.

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