Telecom executive Donald H. Gips raised a big bundle of cash to help finance his friend Barack Obama’s run for the presidency.
Gips, a vice president of Colorado-based Level 3 Communications LLC, delivered more than $500,000 in contributions for the Obama war chest, while two fellow senior company executives collected at least $150,000 more.
After the election, Gips was put in charge of hiring in the Obama White House, helping to place loyalists and fundraisers in many key positions. Then in mid-2009, the new president named him ambassador to South Africa. Level 3 Communications, in which Gips retained stock, meanwhile received millions of dollars of government stimulus contracts for broadband projects in six states—though Gips said he was “completely unaware” of the stimulus money.
More than two years after President Obama took office vowing to banish “special interests” from his administration, nearly 200 of his biggest donors have landed plum government jobs and advisory posts, won federal contracts worth millions of dollars for their business interests or attended numerous elite White House meetings and social events, an investigation by iWatch News has found.
These “bundlers” raised at least $50,000 and sometimes more than $500,000 in campaign donations for Obama’s campaign. Many of those in the “Class of 2008” are now being asked to bundle contributions for Obama’s re-election, an effort that could cost $1 billion.
As a candidate, Obama spoke passionately about diminishing the clout of moneyed interests and making the White House more accessible to everyday Americans. In kicking off his presidential run on Feb. 10, 2007, he blasted “the cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests,” who he said had “turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.”
“They write the checks and you get stuck with the bill, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we’re here today to take it back,” he said.
But just like other presidential aspirants, Obama relied heavily on mega-donors to propel his campaign across the finish line and many fundraisers have shared in the spoils of victory. Some took jobs in pivotal federal agencies such as the Department of Justice, Department of Energy and the Federal Communications Commission, while others have served on influential advisory commissions and boards that meet periodically to help formulate policy. Two dozen have been appointed ambassadors to foreign countries.
The White House said its appointees were highly qualified. “In filling these posts, the administration looks for the most qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one.”
The iWatch News investigation found:
• Overall, 184 of 556, or about one-third, of Obama bundlers or their spouses joined the administration in some role. But the percentages are much higher for the big-dollar bundlers. Nearly 80 percent of those who collected more than $500,000 for Obama took “key administration posts,” as defined by the White House. More than half the ambassador nominees who were bundlers raised more than half a million.
• The big bundlers had broad access to the White House for meetings with top administration officials and glitzy social events. In all, campaign bundlers and their family members account for more than 3,000 White House meetings and visits. Half of them raised $200,000 or more.
• Some Obama bundlers have ties to companies that stand to gain financially from the president’s policy agenda, particularly in clean energy and telecommunications, and some already have done so. Level 3 Communications, for instance, snared $13.8 million in stimulus money. At least 18 other bundlers have ties to businesses poised to profit from government spending to promote clean energy, telecommunications and other key administration priorities.
Some bundlers trade on their campaign largesse for Obama to further career aspirations or business plans. Others, already successful, simply enjoy the exclusive stature bestowed by ties to the White House. Lena L. Kennedy, for instance, papers her Southern California consulting website with photographs of herself with Obama. She put out a press release announcing a June 13 fundraiser featuring Michelle Obama in Los Angeles; ticket prices ran from $1,000 to $10,000, the latter “allowing a photo opportunity and private time with the First Lady.” She declined to comment for this article.
“Some people just crave attention and some people just like getting the notoriety or attention of being a big player,” said Thomas M. McInerney , a San Francisco lawyer who bundled at least $100,000 for Obama. He said he didn’t ask for or get anything in return, though he knew others who did. “There was so much money this time, and there were so many people involved in raising the money, the number of people looking for something was exponentially more.”
Rewarding the donors
While the Obama administration tightened restrictions on hiring lobbyists, the deference it has shown major donors contradicts its claims to have changed business as usual in Washington, critics said.
Others said Obama strains credulity in claiming to bring reform to Washington while carrying on the patronage practices of past administrations. They added that many big donors aren’t shy about asking for specific favors, which gives candidates of both parties little choice but to keep patronage alive.
“Any president who says he’s going to change this is either hopelessly naïve or polishing the reality to promise something other than can be delivered,” said Paul Light , a New York University professor and expert on presidential transitions. “At best it’s naïve and a little bit of a shell game.”
Many of the Obama bundlers said they did not seek or expect anything for themselves.
“I just want to see somebody do a good job,” said Stewart Bainum, a Chevy Chase, Md., hotel chain CEO who with his wife, Sandy, raised $500,000 for Obama in 2008. He is listed in White House logs as a guest at a St. Patrick’s Day
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