Group Tied to President Obama Opened White House Doors for Major Donors

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  • Dale Eisman

Despite public promises that it would not do so, a lobbying and advocacy organization with close ties to the Obama administration appears to have promised some major contributors special access to the President and federal officials in return for their financial support, Common Cause said today.

An NBC News report that Organizing for Action (OFA) promised a brief meeting with the President to a six-figure donor and then tried to re-direct the money to an allied group that would not have to disclose the contribution “is a disquieting illustration of the power of big money to open doors in Washington,” said Arn Pearson, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation.

The donor involved, Dr. Joseph Piacentile, is a New Jersey doctor who was hoping to secure a presidential pardon for his 1991 conviction on Medicare fraud and tax evasion charges, NBC said. OFA returned his $100,000 check after the network raised questions about it and Piacentile apparently was not permitted to join “a small clutch” of Obama supporters who met privately with the President after an OFA-sponsored event last week.

NBC said a New Jersey businessman, Munr Kazmir, acted as a middleman for the aborted donation, delivering Piacentile’s check. Kazmir, a Republican “bundler” of political money with close ties to Governor Chris Christie, told the network that OFA executive director Jon Carson was able to secure meetings with a White House aide and an official at the Agency for International Development to discuss a legal judgment against him for failure to repay a $2.5 million loan from the Overseas Private Insurance Group, a federal agency. He apparently did not receive any help as a result of those meetings.

“This is the sort of pay-to-play operation that President Obama correctly identified as corrosive to our democracy and promised to end when he first ran for President, and it raises troubling ethical and legal concerns,” Pearson said. “OFA promised last year that it would not provide access for cash, but it appears that that promise has been ignored.”

NBC said OFA has acknowledged steering two other major donations it felt uncomfortable accepting to groups that are allowed to conceal their donors.

The fundraiser who handled the Piancentile check has been fired, and Carson has issued a memo stating that OFA “fell short” on its ethical standards and recommitting OFA to a policy of not providing access to donors or redirecting contributions to other nonprofits.

“OFA and President Obama need to make good on their promises, operate with full transparency, and take steps to end the pay-to-play culture in Washington, not add to it,” Pearson said.

After Common Cause and other watchdog groups challenged its reported access-for-cash plans last year, OFA said it would reject corporate gifts and disclose all contributions larger than $250.

“Those were positive steps and we praised them,” Pearson said, “but it’s clear that OFA and groups like it, legally ‘independent’ but closely aligned with powerful elected officials, thrive in part because they can connect those officials to wealthy donors. President Obama was elected in part because Americans believed he would change this seamy side of our political culture. It’s past time for him to get serious about doing so.”