a lot of contributions other than just their own,” said Pickering, who chairs the American Academy of Diplomacy.
The White House pointed out that some ambassadorships went to non-civil service people who did not bundle for Obama but were uniquely qualified for the posts. One example is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican.
Gips evolution from telecom exec to ambassador
Few stories illustrate how friendship, fundraising, business and politics can intertwine at the White House more vividly than that of Gips, Obama’s choice for ambassador to South Africa.
In 1998, Gips left government work, where he had supervised wireless spectrum issues for the FCC and served as Vice President Al Gore’s chief domestic policy adviser. He joined a budding telecom company — Level 3 Communications in Colorado — which has obtained more than $100 million in federal contracts over the past decade.
At a 2004 fundraiser, he met Obama, who was then running in Illinois for the U.S. Senate. The two grew close — Obama asked Gips to help edit his campaign book, The Audacity of Hope — and Obama acknowledged his friend’s counsel in the book.
Gips collected more than $500,000 for Obama. James Crowe, chairman of the Level 3 board, was an Obama bundler, too, raising at least $100,000. So was the firm’s vice chairman, Charles Miller III, who bundled more than $50,000.
At the White House, Gips was a powerful force to decide who got coveted jobs. Obama appointed Level 3 executive Crowe in October 2010 to chair the presidential advisory committee on telecommunications and wireless issues.
And Level 3 was awarded some $13.8 million in federal stimulus contracts, to extend broadband connections in rural areas of states where it had networks.
In an email sent to iWatch News through the White House, Gips said that he had not been involved in “any matter involving Level 3” since joining the administration. Gips also said he didn’t know the company had received stimulus contracts and played no role in Crowe’s selection to the telecommunications panel.
The i Watch News investigation confirmed that at least 18 other bundlers have ties to businesses poised to profit from the president’s political agenda, through stimulus money, government contracts, or other spending to promote clean energy technology or green development.
Oklahoma billionaire investor George Kaiser is one. A longtime Democratic donor, he is a big financial backer of a company that in March of 2009 won a $535 million loan guarantee from DOE for a solar plant in Silicon Valley. He had multiple visits to the White House in the months before he was awarded the contract. Kaiser has not responded to interview requests from iWatch News.
Steven Westly, a green energy entrepreneur who raised at least $500,000 for Obama, has seen four companies in his venture firm’s portfolio receive more than a half billion dollars in loans, grants or stimulus money from the Obama Energy Department, iWatch News and ABC reported in March.
Bundlers win commission posts across government
Some bundlers limit their role in the administration to serving on commissions to support their pet causes and hobnob with celebrities.
Obama has appointed 22 bundlers to the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities or to the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Four of the nine members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council appointed by Obama in September 2010 were bundlers, including its chairman Tom Bernstein. He is a New York City developer and sports entrepreneur who raised at least $200,000 for the Obama presidential campaign.
This is Bernstein’s second appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council. Bush appointed him to the same board in 2002 after Bernstein raised at least $100,000 for the 2000 Bush campaign. A former Yale classmate of Bush and fellow owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, Bernstein switched allegiances to bundle for the Obama campaign.
Others have served on advisory groups which make recommendations to the president on critical matters ranging from the economic stimulus to policies to spur job growth.
Hyatt hotels heiress Penny Pritzker, Wall Street titan Robert Wolf and financier Mark Gallogly, for instance, all served on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Commission. Though the commission was headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, Pritzker at least twice emerged from the White House and faced media cameras on days the commission met.
In late February, in creating a new commission to take on the task of creating jobs, Obama again appointed the three businesspeople. Transcripts of the recovery board meetings show that commission members are free to press for an agenda that could significantly benefit their business interests.
Pritzker, one of America’s richest women and a key fundraiser and adviser in the early days of the Obama campaign, has logged more than 50 visits to the White House, either alone or with family members. Obama also appointed Pritzker to the Kennedy Center board and her husband, Chicago ophthalmologist Bryan Traubert, to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.
Pritzker suggested she had clout in a May 2009 CNBC television interview on the White House lawn, saying: “I have no trouble having a spirited dialogue with the president, and that’s something that we do on a regular basis.”
When the reporter asked, “Do you get anywhere?” Pritzker replied: “Absolutely. The president is extremely open to hearing what people on his economic board have to say. And I think it’s absolutely informing some of his decisions.”
Schultz, the White House spokesman, said the administration recruited job candidates from all walks of life. “The people mentioned in this article have sterling academic credentials, years of public service and private sector experience that make them eminently qualified for the positions to which they were appointed.”
The bundling merry-go-round is cranking up for its second act: Obama’s re-election campaign.
Bainum, the Maryland businessman, said he expects it to be rougher going than in 2008. The campaign will be more expensive, and top bundlers are being asked to bring in $350,000 for the president’s
campaign and another $350,000 for the DNC.
“These amounts seem to go up every year faster than rate of inflation,” he said. “I haven’t tested the waters yet.”
With an eye toward the re-election campaign, the White House peppered the guest list for the June 7 state dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel with bundlers. Among the 200 guests at the Rose Garden event were a dozen bundlers, most with their spouses, including the Bainums.
Schulte, Farrell and Borden are reporters for iWatch News.org, a website of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on investigative journalism.