Obama transition team heavy with big fundraisers

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama says moneyed interests won't have an inside track in his White House, but six of the 15 people he named to his transition team are top fundraisers.

They include Julius Genachowski, a former technology and news media executive and an Obama classmate at Harvard Law who raised more than $500,000 for the campaign, and Federico Peña, a two-time Cabinet secretary in the Clinton administration who is a managing partner in a global investment firm. He collected more than $50,000.

Campaign watchdog experts, such as Craig Holman of Public Citizen, say the close involvement of these big fundraisers — known as bundlers because they collect money from friends, family and business associates — could give them undue sway in the new administration. "The whole point of these bundlers bringing in so much money is that they get to exercise influence in the next administration," Holman said. Obama's pledge to clean up Washington "is encouraging," Holman said. "But this is a warning sign."

Obama spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said transition members "were chosen based on their skills, ability and expertise."

In an interview, Peña said there is "no connection" between his fundraising and service on the transition team.

"The people who are in the transition process are people that (Obama) has great confidence in and who bring different talents and experiences to this effort," he said. "If some of them happen to also be involved in fundraising, that's simply a coincidence."

The new president will have to walk a fine line to avoid potential conflicts of interest as he fills key positions, said David Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and author of The Politics of Presidential Appointments.

"The campaign mobilized a tremendous number of donors and campaign workers and volunteers," he said. "Some of those people did it for the joy of participating in the political process, but many of those people participated … with the expectation they were going to get something."

In the Bush administration, roughly one out of every five big fundraisers ended up with a government appointment — ranging from Cabinet posts to spots on little-known boards such as the American Battle Monuments Commission, Public Citizen's data show. Forty-six of President Bush's top bundlers secured coveted ambassadorships ranging from the Bahamas to Belgium, according to the group's tally.

Nearly 950 fundraisers collected cash for Bush during his two campaigns; about 600 raised money for Obama.

The transition team is working on new hiring rules to comply with Obama's campaign vow to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington and discourage political appointees from using their jobs for personal gain. One provision, outlined during the campaign, would bar federal lobbyists from taking jobs in the new administration in areas in which they had been lobbying during the previous two years.

In addition, once leaving a government post, no political appointee could lobby the executive branch for the rest of the administration.

Currently, top political appointees who leave government jobs are barred from lobbying their former colleagues on behalf of private companies for two years.

"We want to end this revolving door … where people come from industry, go into government, rig the deck in favor of those industries, and then go back," Obama's senior strategist David Axelrod said of planned hiring changes during a recent appearance on ABC's This Week.

Political observers say Obama's push to reduce special interests' influence is laudable but his restrictions on lobbyist hiring could hamper the administration from recruiting the best talent.

"A lot of the people with expertise are lobbyists," said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist who was Democrat John Kerry's deputy campaign manager in 2004.

Obama should also broaden hiring restrictions beyond lobbyists to clamp down fully on special interests, Elmendorf said. "The person who is an executive at a pharmaceutical company who is not a lobbyist should not be able to go to the FDA and make rules that affect that company," he said.

Vanderbilt's Lewis said Obama's proposals "decrease the chance of corruption and scandal," but increase the "chance of getting people in jobs who don't know those jobs very well." That could slow hiring in an administration that must ramp up swiftly to cope with two wars and a global economic crisis, he said.