Obama’s White House Fundraising ‘Unseemly but Perfectly Legal’

Officials from good government groups Tuesday criticized President Obama for engaging in fundraising-related activities on the grounds of the White House, though they did so noting that the president is joining a long tradition of presidents who have done so.

On March 7, President Obama met with more than two dozen financial leaders and executives , in the Blue Room of the White House. The event was organized by the Democratic National Committee, and all but one of the individuals appear to be campaign contributors to the president.

More recently, the president taped a video in the residence of the White House, as part of a fundraising “raffle” for donors, offering a dinner with him as a prize.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that a president holding a DNC- or RNC-sponsored event at the White House is extremely common.

“It is wholly understandable why the president would want to consult with business executives about their ideas about, you know, what to do in terms of economic policy and business policy going forward, including financial sector policy,” Carney said, “and the fact that they're supporters, obviously, he would want to talk to his supporters about that, as well,” he said.

Good government groups were more inclined to criticize the White House meeting with business leaders than the filming of the video, though they all said the March meeting appeared perfectly legal.

“It looks bad,” said Mary Boyle, vice president of communications for Common Cause. “It’s disappointing that a president who has gone further than most others in terms of putting up firewalls between the White House and special interests, would host in the White House a meeting with past or current donors.”

Boyle said the meeting “conveys that it’s business as usual, and whether he is or not, it appears he’s selling access. Given the way he campaigned and to some extent has governed, it makes us wonder why he didn’t hold this meeting somewhere else.”

Common Cause said that donors who visited the White House that day gave $1,750,254 to President Obama and Democratic congressional candidates and $54,616 to independent or Republican candidates during the 2008 and 10 cycles. They donated an additional $1,138,600 to the DNC or the two congressional Democratic re-election committees.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 said that “in light of the soft money scandals” of the 1990s “it is simply common sense that nothing should be done that would leave the impression that the White House is being used for fundraising. Meetings in the White House should not have any political fundraising overtones and these kinds of activities ought to be avoided in the future.”

Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), called the activities, "unseemly, but perfectly legal. And they all do this.”

She said “every president tries to woo donors and while most of us in government reform would like it to not be that way, under the current campaign finance system, that’s what’s allowed.”

A White House official told ABC News that filming the video in the White House residence “is entirely appropriate. The legal restriction is only that we cannot solicit funds in certain offices in the White House which we’re not doing.” The DNC brought the film crew and paid for it.

The good government officials weren’t particularly critical of the president filming the video in the White House residence.

“The raffle itself is aimed at small donors, which is the kind of money Common Cause thinks should be encouraged,” Boyle said, “and in fact, you can enter the raffle without even donating. As for whether he filmed it in the residence portion, versus somewhere else, we don’t see how the public interest is being harmed if he filmed this in his residence.”

Sloan said that the White House residence can be used as anyone would use his or her home. “Can you imagine if he had traveled on a big motorcade to go somewhere else to film it?” she asked.

The White House provided a list of Youtube clips of Republican presidents using the White House in campaign ads, including THIS ONE from President George W. Bush and THIS ONE from President Ronald Reagan.

Wertheimer noted that as campaign season heats up, “there is more pressure on politicians from the people who raise money” to participate in these types of activities.

-Jake Tapper

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