Watchdogs Question Obama Donor Influence in 'Fiscal Cliff' Meetings

(Image credit: Pete Souza/The White House)

Government watchdogs today questioned the place of top Obama campaign donors among the elite few invited to the White House over the past two weeks for private presidential consultations on the looming " fiscal cliff."

Supporters of President Obama who maxed out personal contributions to his campaign or the Democratic National Committee, or helped bundle hundreds of thousands of dollars more, have been seated at the table in every publicly-announced post-election White House meeting with "business leaders," according to lists released by the administration.

A West Wing meeting with Obama on Wednesday afternoon included Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who bundled between $100,000 and $200,000 for Obama's campaign; Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who gave $20,000 to the DNC; and Archer Daniels Midland CEO Patricia Woertz, who gave more than $33,000 to Obama and the DNC combined, Federal Election Commission records show.

On Nov. 16, according to Bloomberg News, Obama attended an unpublicized meeting with a group of financial leaders, most of whom were his top campaign financiers. The list of participants includes at least six bundlers - including UBS Americas chairman Robert Wolf and Centerbridge Partners founder Mark Gallogly - who each raised half a million dollars or more for a second Obama term, according to the president's campaign.

"It certainly looks like the president is rewarding his top bundlers with White House meetings on this critical issue," said Mary Boyle of Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that promotes greater government transparency.

"This is the access the bundlers were seeking when they spent months on end raising money for President Obama, and this will be their first opportunity to let him know what else they expect for their investment," she said.

The Sunlight Foundation's Bill Allison said inclusion of so many donors underscores a "culture of money and access."

"This plays right into it," he said.

"You shouldn't necessarily exclude somebody because they've given money from seeking their advice or seeking their opinion," Allison added. "But when donors are such an overwhelming part of the kinds of folks you're bringing in, I think you end up with a somewhat distorted view of the economy."

Among the executives Obama met with on Wednesday were several who gave to the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson and State Farm CEO Ed Rust both maxed out to Romney's campaign and the Republican National Committee. Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, also big GOP donors, also attended.

"Nice of them to include a few Romney donors in the CEOs, but still, all of these people who gave money for the most part do it because they have a stake in the outcome of the election and they want to be able to access politicians," Allison said.

"It's really hard for me to believe that there aren't plenty of business people out there who don't play the political game and who might have something to say that's of use to the president on the economy," he said, noting that very few business owners actually donate to political campaigns.

A White House spokesman dismissed the criticism, noting that Obama has met with a business and social leaders who are not donors or bundlers, and today assembled 85 "ordinary middle class folks" for an event on taxes.

(The official declined to provide a list of names of those "folks" or whether any of the participants were donors. Obama did not hold a formal meeting with the attendees, according to the president's public schedule.)

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a watchdog group, said that while greater transparency is always preferred, Obama's inclusion of donors is to be expected.

"He's looking to build support for his proposal and it's not unnatural to be meeting with your supporters to build support," Wertheimer said.

Earlier this week, a coalition of independent watchdog groups praised Obama's advances in transparency, including new legislation, backed by the administration and signed into law this week, that enhances protections for government whistleblowers.

The groups have also credited Obama for voluntarily releasing the names and contribution amounts of his bundlers - a move not required by law and not matched by his Republican rival.

UPDATE: In an emailed statement, White House spokesman Eric Schultz underscored the inclusion of many Republican donors in meetings as evidence the administration was not doling out invitations solely to the president's financial backers.

"Being a supporter of the President does not secure you a meeting here, nor does it preclude you from one," Schultz said. "In just the past week, the President has met with small business owners, labor leaders, members of Congress, corporate CEO's, civic and progressive leaders, and middle class Americans - of all political persuasions. Beginning on his first day in office, when he signed an Executive Order instituting unprecedented reforms, this President has taken historic steps to reduce the influence of money in politics."

This post has been updated.