WASHINGTON – Planners of President Barack Obama's second inauguration are making an unprecedented solicitation for high-dollar contributions up to $1 million to help pay for the celebration in exchange for special access.
The changes are part of a continuing erosion of Obama's pledge to keep donors and special interests at arm's length of his presidency. He has abandoned the policy from his first inauguration to accept donations up to only $50,000 from individuals, announcing last month that he would take unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations.
A fundraising appeal obtained by The Associated Press shows the Presidential Inaugural Committee is going far beyond his previous self-imposed limits – or apparently any fundraising in the modern history of American presidential inaugurations – by offering donors four VIP packages named after the country's founding fathers.
Event organizers are hoping the packages will pay for expensive events surrounding Obama's inaugural on Jan. 21. Obama raised $53 million in private money for his first inauguration, when a record 1.8 million people packed the National Mall to see the nation's first black president take the oath of office. The celebration has been scaled down this year, with less than half the crowd expected and a cut from 10 inauguration-night balls to two.
But the pressure is high to pay for the festivities after donors already contributed to the most expensive political race in U.S. history, a campaign that exceeded $2 billion. So far, health care executives and major Democratic Party donors – including those who've taken private meetings with Obama or his senior staff – are among those paying for the party.
The shifts underscore Obama's evolving stance on changing how business is conducted in Washington. He criticized pay-for-access privileges during his first campaign, and after coming into office he pledged to have the most transparent administration in history. The president once shunned lobbyists but later gave some waivers to work for his administration. Once a vocal opponent of super political action committees – which can spend as much money as they can raise to help candidates – Obama later embraced them when faced with the mountain of cash spent by allies of his Republican campaign challengers.
The inaugural donation pitch for top contributors promotes a standard inaugural fundraising practice of offering packages that include tickets to balls and other events, albeit at much higher prices this time.
Donors at the "Washington" level are offered "premium partner access" for a minimum donation of $250,000 from individuals and $1 million from corporations. The package includes four tickets to the inaugural ball, an in-demand perk with just two being held this year on inauguration night. Inaugural planners also offered $60 tickets for members of the general public, but they sold out quickly Sunday night. Tickets to the Commander In Chiefs Ball are free for invited members of the military and other guests.
Other perks of the Washington package include two bleacher seats to the parade, a VIP reception at a Candle Light Celebration on inauguration eve, tickets to a children's concert, co-chairs reception and a "Road Ahead" meeting featuring members of the president's finance team Saturday, and tickets to a benefactors reception to kick off the weekend.
The "Adams" package also promises premium partner access for $150,000 from individuals and $500,000 from corporations. It offers two tickets to the ball but not the parade bleacher seats and some other reception access.
Donors are offered "special partner access" that still includes ball tickets and the Candle Light Celebration at the National Building Museum for donations of $75,000 for individuals and $250,000 for corporations at the "Jefferson" level and $10,000 and $100,000 at the "Madison" level.
Presidential Inaugural Committee officials point out that many civic organizations also accept corporate donations and that they do not allow sponsorship deals. The committee also says it vets donations and rejects those from companies that haven't paid back loans from the 2008 federal bailout of Wall Street. And it does not accept donations from any foreign entity in compliance with federal law.
"Our guidelines aren't just consistent with the law – they are consistent with the president's commitment to transparency and to reducing the influence of PACs and lobbyists in Washington," the committee said in a statement. "In fact, President Obama is the only president who has refused to accept donations from PACs and lobbyists for his inaugural committee and put in place the most robust disclosures for his inaugural committees, which include regularly posting donors to a website."
More than 400 individuals and a handful of corporations have so far contributed $200 or more to the committee, according to the online list. The rolling disclosure goes beyond the law that requires that donations be disclosed within 90 days of the inauguration.
But the list of donors being posted online is limited. It contains only names of people and companies who contributed, and offers no information on how much each donor gave. There is also no hint at the donors' occupations or where they're from.
An AP review of those names, combined with government records and White House visitor logs, found more than 30 inauguration benefactors who apparently have had private meetings with Obama's advisers, dined at state dinners or attended holiday parties with the president in attendance.
Donors to the 2013 inaugural party include Bertram Scott and Challis Lowe, two health care executives who've been to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., records show. Scott, a former president with Cigna, and Lowe, Ascension Health's senior vice president for organizational development and human resources, attended White House receptions.
Beyond health care circles, inaugural supporters include David DesJardins, a former Google top staffer and political activist who met with deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough in March 2010. DesJardins contributed more than $100,000 in the recent election campaign to American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC supporting Obama's a second term.
Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of tech giant Qualcomm and one of the biggest donors to Obama's re-election effort, also is among the inauguration donors. The La Jolla, Calif., billionaire has given more than $2 million to pro-Obama super PACs and thousands more directly to Obama's campaign and the Democrats.
None of the donors responded to the AP seeking requests for comment Tuesday.
The $1 million donations sought by Obama's inaugural committee far surpass the record $250,000-range in contributions made by corporations and affluent financiers during the inaugurations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and appear to the be the highest in the history of American presidential inaugurations, say several inauguration analysts.
The Federal Election Commission allows limitless contributions to presidential inaugurations, but recent presidents set self-imposed bars. Bush set a limit of $250,000 on inaugural contributions for his 2005 event and $100,000 for his 2001 event. Those caps did little to dampen the flow from corporate contributors, as Bush reaped $42.5 million in inaugural donations in 2005 and $30 million in 2001. Despite the limits, several firms gave as much as $750,000 apiece by donating from corporate subsidiaries.
Clinton's inaugural committee raised $23 million for his 1997 event, adding to a $9 million surplus left over from nearly $30 million in fundraising for his 1993 inauguration. Clinton accepted donations as high as $250,000 for his first inaugural, but set a much tighter cap for his second, limiting contributions to $100 and selling ball tickets for a maximum of $3,000 each. That clampdown followed 2001 inaugural fundraising abuses in which two Indonesia bank executives donated $100,000 each – controversies later highlighted by Congressional investigations.