In an election-year effort to cast President Obama as a "typical politician," Republicans are highlighting the administration's alleged hypocrisy on transparency in holding meetings with lobbyists off White House grounds in order to keep them secret.
While the meetings have been extensively reported before by ABC News and the New York Times , a new report published Tuesday by House Republicans exposed a raft of email messages between industry lobbyists and Obama administration officials deliberately making plans to rendezvous off-site to avoid detection.
In several cases, the officials' messages were sent from non-governmental, personal email accounts, which Republicans allege was intended to keep the correspondence from the public record.
"Jim - coffee at Caribou Coffee - across the corner from the WH - would work at 11:30 a.m. on Friday…plus getting you through the new WH security rules these days almost takes an act of Congress almost (and you know how well that's going these days)," wrote one official in the White House Office of Science and Technology policy to an executive in the GPS industry. "[P]lus you'd appear on an official WH Visitor List which is maybe not want [sic] you want at this stage …"
Other emails show then White House chief of staff Jim Messina using a non-governmental account to discuss language for the health care reform bill with a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist. In one message from March 2010, Messina assures the lobbyist he would overcome opposition from then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to achieve more favorable legislation.
"I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion," Messina told Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobbyist Jeffrey Forbes. "As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the house. But there just isn't 8-10 billion."
Republicans say Messina's emails from his personal account potentially violate the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all official executive branch communications be archived for public record.
In a new web video and conference call with reporters, the Republican National Committee blasted President Obama, who pledged to make his administration the most transparent in history.
"The Obama White House is actively deceiving the American people and they are doing it over a Caribou latte," RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters, referring to the coffee shop where many of the undisclosed meetings with lobbyists occurred.
"This President does not want the American people to know who they are meeting with on a day-to-day basis," Priebus said. "They have had many meetings at coffee houses, so we have no way of knowing what insider deals they are cutting with lobbyists with tax payers' money."
White House press secretary Jay Carney, who called the House Republicans' report an attempt to distract from more weighty policy issues, insisted administration officials did not attempt to avoid detection by using non-White House email accounts or holding off-site meetings.
"Mr. Messina had a longstanding personal email account in which he got traffic. In an effort to comply with all the regulations pertaining to emails, he would forward emails to his White House account or copy his White House account so that those emails would be part of presidential record," Carney said.
Asked whether it is White House policy to hold some meetings off-site to avoid individuals' names in the visitor logs, Carney demurred.
"I don't have anything on this specific issue," he said.
As for whether presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney would be a more transparent president, and whether there were comparable emails that went missing or were private during the George W. Bush administration, Priebus also dodged.
"I hope that all those Democrats that were whining during the Bush years would agree with the hypocrisy of all of this, and jump on board with us," he said, adding he wasn't going to re-litigate the Bush years.
- Devin Dwyer, Shushannah Walshe and Mary Bruce