Transparency, Change We Can Believe In, Ethics, All That Good Stuff

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 25, 2011

They were promised to us by then-Senator Barack Obama when he ran for President. Look how he has delivered:

Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, former technology executive Bernard Schwartz and banking executive James Staley were among 30 well-connected figures in the business and finance world who met with President Barack Obama at the White House in March for an unusual economic discussion organized by the Democratic National Committee.

The White House released the names on Friday under a policy Obama instituted in 2009 to disclose nearly all White House guests approximately three months after they visit.

The March 7 meeting in the Blue Room of the residence has drawn attention and criticism because most of the attendees were donors or fundraisers and the session was arranged by the DNC. Good-government advocates said hosting the event at the White House was ill-advised.

“There’s a pretty clear line — or there should be a clear line,” Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, which presses for tighter controls on campaign finance, recently told POLITICO. “I don’t have a problem with the president inviting Wall Street people to the White House to discuss policy, but why does it need to be DNC-sponsored? I think that’s what raises the eyebrows. Even if it’s not a fundraiser, it’s a cultivation.”

In addition to the Wall Street financiers and business executives, the session was attended by Andy Tobias, the DNC treasurer; Patrick Gaspard, the former White House political director and current DNC executive director; and Brad Thompson, a DNC fundraiser who works with high-dollar donors and bundlers in New York.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week the White House is “very transparent” about its DNC-sponsored events. White House officials have described the meeting as a chance for Obama to solicit supporters’ views on the economy. However, Obama aides have not responded to queries from POLITICO about which Obama aides accompanied him to the meeting.

At a House hearing this week, two Bush White House ethics lawyers said the session raised questions under the Hatch Act, the federal law limiting political activity on federal property and by government officials.

“It is unclear why the Democratic National Committee would have been used to organize a meeting to solicit advice on the economy. Indeed, this meeting seems to walk a fine line between official and political with all of the attendant Hatch Act concerns,” Scott Coffina, who served as an ethics adviser to the Bush White House, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“I would never have agreed to having such a meeting going on in the White House itself, in any room of the White House,” said Richard Painter, who also served as an ethics counsel under Bush. “I know there’s controversy about that. But I would not want to see those meetings, quite frankly, going on on federal property. What the legal restrictions are is somewhat more ambiguous.”

As the story notes, both the Democratic and the Republican National Committees have sponsored events at the White House, but it also notes the infamous Clinton Administration “coffees” that sparked so much controversy about ethical issues. One would have thought that a President and an Administration who promised us a new brand of politics would have avoided being tarnished by the political practices of yore. One would have been wrong.

Those who believe that we have an effective and competent media, capable of being properly outraged when a President and his Administration overstep ethical bounds, will find that proposition tested by this issue. If they are right about the doggedness and capabilities of the press corps, the media will rise to the occasion, and initiate a larger investigation of this issue. Personally, I cannot help but worry that reporters and news organizations will sink to the expectations of cynics. But I would love to be pleasantly surprised.

Previous post:

Next post: