Obama ‘Less Transparent’ Than Bush & Cheney on Campaign Donors

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UPDATED 10:15 p.m: Adding McCain has also been lax in reporting bundlers and more names of Obama bundlers. McCain also added to headline.

“Obama was saying he was the most transparent, but it wasn’t even on par with Bush and Cheney.” — Alexander Cohen, senior researcher at Public Citizen.

MICHAEL LUO and CHRISTOPHER DREW
The New York Times
July 11, 2008

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have long been among the most outspoken critics of the influence of money in politics. Yet records show that in their presidential campaigns, neither has lived up to their promises to fully disclose the identities of their top money-collectors who bundle millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Since November, Obama had added just two new names to a list of 326 fundraisers who have bundled contributions of $50,000 or more for him, despite the campaign’s taking in more than $180 million during that time.

After receiving an inquiry from The New York Times, the campaign scrambled Thursday evening to update its list of bundlers, adding 181 names — a more than 50 percent jump — and increasing the amounts some were credited with raising. The number of bundlers who have collected $200,000 or more increased to 138 from 78.

Obama, in particular, has made transparency a cornerstone of his campaign, even introducing a bill in the Senate last year that would mandate that presidential candidates identify their bundlers.

But McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has also railed against the influence of money on politics and has been lax on the issue of bundler disclosure as well.

With individual contributions limited to $2,300, bundlers fuel the fundraising of presidential campaigns by collecting piles of checks from wealthy acquaintances in a practice that critics say gives them excessive influence. While Obama has collected unprecedented amounts in small donations over the Internet, he also has a formidable high-dollar fundraising apparatus.

A number of members of Obama’s National Finance Committee, who have each committed to raising at least $250,000 for him, were not on the publicly available bundler list on the campaign’s Web site as of Thursday afternoon. Several of the missing members said in interviews that they had begun raising money for Obama in early to mid-2007 and had already exceeded their $250,000 goal. More than two dozen were added to the list on Thursday evening.

The spotty disclosure records of Obama and McCain, despite repeated entreaties from watchdog groups, compare unfavorably with that of George W. Bush in his two runs for president. “Obama was saying he was the most transparent, but it wasn’t even on par with Bush and Cheney,” said Alexander Cohen, senior researcher at Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group that recently sent letters to Obama and McCain with seven other organizations calling for them to disclose more information about their donors. They said about 100 of the 181 names should have been added at the end of this year’s first quarter.

Obama campaign officials acknowledged Thursday that they had fallen behind on their plan to update their list quarterly and that they had not added any names since January. “Keeping track of how much our bundlers have raised is not an exact science, and we will be vigilant in updating those names and figures,” Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, said in a statement.

Despite promising early on to disclose bundlers, it was only in April that the McCain campaign released a list of just over 100 top fundraisers, who had brought in $100,000 or more. Since then, McCain has added only one name to his list, who earn the title “Trailblazer” if they raise more than $100,000 and “Innovator” if they exceed $250,000.

It is unclear how many bundlers might be missing from McCain’s list. He has enjoyed a surge in fundraising in recent months, after struggling much of last year, and absorbed many former fundraisers for Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and other Republican rivals who were not on his initial list.

Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain, said on Thursday that staff members were in the process of updating their bundler list. He said he believed it was “reasonable” to expect the campaign would add to it “every couple months.”

“It’ll be updated in the next week or so,” Rogers said. “This is something Sen. McCain believes in. He’s committed to being open and transparent.”

Highlighting his commitment to beating back special interests in politics, Obama makes a point of declining contributions from lobbyists and political action committees. And he often cites as his signal accomplishment in the Senate his role in the passage of another bill last year that required lobbyists to disclose their bundled donations — a law that has not yet gone into effect. He also became the first candidate to post a list of his top fundraisers early last year.

At a debate in South Carolina last year, Obama boasted of his campaign’s level of disclosure and his efforts on the issue in the Senate.

“That’s the kind of leadership that I’ve shown in the Senate,” Obama said. “That’s the kind of leadership that I showed when I was state legislator. And that’s the kind of leadership that I’ll show as president of the United States.”

Although there is no legal requirement for candidates to disclose their bundlers, in 2000 and 2004, President Bush identified people who had raised at least $100,000 for his campaign, whom he called “Pioneers.” In 2004, he also listed the names of those who had raised $200,000 or more, calling them “Rangers.”

Reporters and watchdog groups pored over Bush’s lists, eventually discovering that 49 Pioneers or Rangers later became ambassadors.

In March, after months of requests from Chicago Sun-Times, the Obama campaign released a roster of nearly 300 people on its National Finance Committee to the newspaper. But the campaign declined this week to release a more recent roster to The New York Times.

Before Thursday evening, however, a dozen Obama fundraisers confirmed in interviews that they had either surpassed the $50,000 mark for Obama and were not on the campaign’s bundler list or that they were no longer in the correct category on the Web site, which divides bundlers by those who have raised more than $50,000, $100,000 and $200,000.

“The conspiracy theory is they don’t want you to know everybody,” said Mitchell Berger, a lawyer in Florida who signed on with the Obama campaign early this year but declined to say exactly how much he has raised, except to confirm it was more than $250,000. “The Mitchell-Berger-I’ve-been-in-campaigns’ theory is, this is not the first thing I’d do in the morning if I’m running a campaign, update a finance list,” Berger said. His name was added to the list on Thursday evening.

In late April, one name was actually removed from the Web site, that of Robert Blackwell Jr., a Chicago businessman. Blackwell’s name was taken off the list in late April after the Los Angeles Times revealed that he had paid Obama an $8,000-a-month retainer for legal advice for a technology firm he owned and that Obama had written a letter on Blackwell’s behalf so another company he owned could get a state grant.

The Obama campaign said they removed Blackwell’s name after learning that he had not met the $50,000 threshold.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton early last year released a list of her “Hillraisers,” people who had raised $100,000 or more for her. But in November she also stopped updating her list — which had more than 320 names — , according to watchdog groups, soon after one of her top bundlers, Norman Hsu, who had raised more than $800,000, was accused of fraud and questionable fundraising tactics. While the Hsu case cast a harsh spotlight on the often-hidden nature of bundlers in campaigns, it is not at all clear that the Obama campaign was seeking to hide anything in its sporadic updating of its bundling list.

The new names added to the Obama campaign list included Federico Pena, the former transportation secretary, and Edward Lamont, the telecommunications millionaire who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut. Also added were two of Obama’s closest friends, Valerie Jarrett and Judson Miner, and Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue magazine.

And the list now includes a pair of Michigan plaintiff’s lawyers, Gerald Acker and Barry Goodman, who had raised money for Edwards, and Michael Coles, a former top Clinton fundraiser.

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This article was posted: Friday, July 11, 2008 at 3:17 pm







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