Facing tough questions about President Barack Obama's past pledges to help curb the role of money in politics, the White House pushed back Monday against suggestions that donors to a new group supporting his agenda will have special access to the president.
Weeks after top Obama allies announced plans to convert his victorious re-election campaign into an unprecedented nonprofit, questions remain about how the group, dubbed Organizing for Action, will interact with the White House. Chief among them is what benefits will be offered to those who shell out hefty sums to help bolster Obama's legislative priorities.
Asked Monday whether there was a price tag to see the president, White House press secretary Jay Carney said emphatically that there was not. But he wouldn't directly address reports that donors who give or raise $500,000 will be invited to quarterly meetings with Obama.
"Administration officials routinely interact with outside advocacy organizations," Carney said. "This has been true in prior administrations and it is true in this one."
Organizing for Action picked up where the White House left off, arguing that those opening their wallets to help the fledgling group were doing so because they want Obama's agenda to succeed — not to score face time they would otherwise be denied.
"No one has been promised access to the president," said the group's spokeswoman, Katie Hogan, who served in a parallel role in Obama's campaign.
Organizers of the nonprofit group have outlined plans to raise tens of millions of dollars for the organization, according to someone who has been briefed on the plans. The group has reached out to 50 top Obama donors who intend to raise at least $500,000 this year, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the group's plans publicly.
The donors, many of whom served on the Obama campaign's National Finance Committee, are expecting they'll receive benefits similar to what they received in the campaign, he said. Those benefits included briefings from top White House officials, campaign operatives and access to Obama. But an explicit menu of benefits available to those who raise specific amounts has not been offered.
That's something of a departure from the campaign, when top-dollar donors often knew exactly what to expect. At a campaign luncheon last summer in San Francisco, for instance, a $5,000 contribution bought a ticket to the 250-person event, but a $35,800 ticket gave 25 donors the chance to talk politics with the president at a private round-table event.
Republican Mitt Romney had a similar set of perks offered to those who bundled contributions for his campaign. And former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both reserved seats at exclusive state dinners for supporters who made substantial financial contributions to their re-election campaigns.
But Organizing for Action is not a campaign. In fact, it says it will woo Americans from both parties and has vowed not to support or endorse candidates.
Still, the post-election effort to raise millions for a group whose sole mission is to promote Obama's agenda has raised serious concerns for advocates of stricter campaign finance laws.
"It's not illegal, but it's another example of how money is soiling and corroding democracy," said Bob Edgar of Common Cause, a government watchdog. He pointed out that Obama, in his first campaign and during his first term in office, made a point of decrying money's outsize influence in politics — even chiding the Supreme Court when it cleared the way for corporations to spend unlimited sums on campaign ads.
Organizing for Action has said it will accept donations from individuals and corporations, but in an attempt to be transparent, will voluntarily disclose its donors and will refuse all donations from federally registered lobbyists.
Carney, Obama's spokesman, said White House officials won't have a hand in fundraising efforts. "While they may appear at appropriate OFA events, in their official capacities they will not be raising money," he said.
But the grassroots group's close ties to the White House are difficult to miss. Its national chairman, Jim Messina, was Obama's campaign manager, and former White House official Jon Carson serves as its executive director. The group also runs Obama's vaunted Twitter handle, (at)BarackObama, which has more than 27 million followers.
Carson and Messina are among those who have met with Obama's top fundraisers in recent weeks to discuss the group's agenda and to secure financial support. Top donors are expected to gather in Washington on March 13 to attend a "founders summit" for those willing to raise $50,000 or more. About 75 donors are expected to attend the event.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.