Organizing for Access

Ethics attorneys question propriety of Obama dark money org

Messina, Carson / AP, Flickr
February 12, 2013

Former Bush administration ethics attorneys are raising concerns over the close relationship between a pro-Obama dark money group and the White House.

Such an arrangement under President George W. Bush, they say, would have alarmed them.

President Barack Obama's dark-money group Organizing for Action (OFA) is staffed by former Obama campaign officials and is aimed at building grassroots support for the administration’s policy agenda. The group is not required to disclose its donors and recently began soliciting corporate funding.

Obama is scheduled to speak to supporters on a post-State of the Union conference call arranged by the group after tonight’s speech. The call will take place during grassroots fundraising "parties" that OFA has organized across the country.

"I did not see President Bush throwing his weight behind these organizations," said Richard Painter, associate counsel and chief ethics lawyer for President Bush from 2005 to 2007. "I’m not going to say [Bush] didn’t touch [outside groups], but I did not see the same kind of push from the president, from the White House, for these kinds of things. If I had, I would have made a lot of noise about it."

Scott Coffina, associate counsel under Bush from 2007 to 2009, said he was not aware of comparable relationships with outside groups during his time in the White House.

"The big concern [with OFA] is what a fine line they’re drawing because this is the entire political apparatus that’s running this," Coffina said. "I don’t know if I would have shot it down out of hand, but I would have probably advised that the leadership of it be a little less heavy on the political operatives and a little more heavy on the policy people."

As a 501(c)(4) group, OFA has restrictions on its partisan political activity. However, Coffina questioned whether the former political operatives running OFA—including former White House aide Jon Carson and Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina—would be tempted to coordinate with partisan Democratic operations, particularly during the 2014 midterm elections.

"The way this organization has been run is like a political operation, and now it has to turn on a dime and completely turn its back on that," Coffina said. "It’s gotta be policed, and who’s going to police it? Is the White House going to police it? Is it going to police itself?"

If administration officials participate in OFA events that involve fundraising, it could give the appearance of quid pro quo, said Painter.

Even if these officials did not explicitly trade favors—as is prohibited by anti-bribery statutes—their appearance at OFA events could give the impression that donors to the organization can purchase special treatment before their agencies.

"Some of this fundraising could start to border something that looks very much like soliciting a bribe, when a government official is going out there and asking people to contribute to a private organization," Painter said.

Also worrying was the fact that internal watchdogs do not appear to be raising alarms, Painter said.

"I do know that our message [in the Bush White House] was stay away from it. And most of our people, if not all of them, were listening," Painter said. "I’m not so sure we’re getting the pushback from [Obama’s] White House counsel’s office and the Office of Government Ethics. … I think these reports show me that this seems awfully loose and that the White House either doesn’t have control over it or, worse yet, the White House is encouraging it."

On a conference call with supporters on Sunday, OFA officials announced that Obama would participate in a conference call with volunteers during post-State of the Union fundraising parties. Officials also said the group would send out its first fundraising email after the president’s speech.

"Really get into [the party guests’] heads that we are going to start grassroots fundraising, and that it’s not scary and that it’s going to be a new thing we’re doing," OFA official Meagan Gardner said. "Start to think okay ‘what do you think would be an amount that you could raise? Or an amount that you and your team could do together?’"

Neither the White House nor Organizing for Action returned requests for comment.