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Top Obama donors among frequent White House guests

By Jack Gillum

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 26 2012 1:51 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2010, file photo, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, third from right, speaks during the first meeting of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability at the Treasury Department in Washington. From left are, Assistant Treasury Secretary for Financial Institutions Michael S. Barr, Ariel Investments Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John W. Rogers Jr., YWCA Senior External Affairs Advisor Lorraine Cole, Education Department Deputy Chief of Staff Matthew Yale and Operation Hope Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Hope Bryan. Obama is using privileged access to one of America’s greatest landmarks to reward his most generous financial supporters in ways that Republicans Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum can’t match: More than 60 of Obama’s biggest campaign donors have visited the White House more than once for meetings with top advisers, holiday parties or state dinners, a review by The Associated Press has found. Top donors to the super PAC supporting Obama, like Rogers and Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, gave more than $150,000 combined to Priorities USA Action, according to finance reports, while also making repeated trips to the White House.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — More than half of President Barack Obama's most generous campaign fundraisers have visited the White House at least once for meetings with top advisers, holiday parties or state dinners, according to a review by The Associated Press. Scores made multiple visits.

The invitations for fundraisers to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — a legal and established practice by incumbent presidents — came despite Obama's past criticisms of Washington's pay-for-access privileges and mark a reversal from early in the president's term when donors complained that Obama was keeping them at arm's length.

The AP's review compared more than 470 of Obama's most important financial supporters against logs of 2 million visitors to the White House since mid-2009. It found that at least 250 of Obama's major fundraisers, as well as a handful of donors to a "super" political committee supporting his campaign were cleared to attend social gatherings or one-on-one meetings with senior advisers.

As a presidential candidate running against Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's campaign once sharply noted that Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had invited David Geffen — whom Obama's campaign said had raised $18 million for the Clintons — to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom. The AP found no evidence of Obama's own donors sleeping overnight in the White House, but timestamps showing arrivals and departures on the government's logs are incomplete for more than 1.7 million records.

This month, the White House extended invitations to more than 30 of the president's top fundraisers to an elaborate state dinner, where they mingled with celebrities and dined with foreign leaders on the South Lawn of the White House.

Other purposes for visits included one-on-one meetings with top West Wing staffers, such as former chief of staff Pete Rouse and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Those donors include so-called "bundlers" — supporters who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece for Obama's re-election.

Across the Atlantic on Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron released records of private meetings with his own donors who dined with him at 10 Downing St. Cameron's government initially refused to share details of the meetings. It changed course following the resignation Sunday of a fundraising aide caught boasting that he could organize access to Cameron in return for large donations. Cameron said the dinners were not intended to solicit funds for his party and were private meals with people he regarded as friends.

Obama's campaign has said it would begin encouraging supporters to donate to a "super" political action committee supporting him, Priorities USA Action, to counterbalance the cash flowing to GOP groups. The decision drew rebukes from campaign-finance watchdogs and Republicans who said Obama flip-flopped on his prior stance assailing super PAC money. The group supporting Obama has raised $6.3 million so far.

Visitor-log details of some of Obama's donors have surfaced in news reports since he took office. But the financial weight of super PACs and their influence on this year's election have prompted renewed scrutiny of the big-money financiers behind presidential candidates — and what those supporters might want in return.

Many of the White House visits by donors came before the president embraced the big-money, fundraising groups he once assailed as a "threat to democracy" on grounds they corrode elections by permitting unlimited and effectively anonymous donations from billionaires and corporations. Obama was once so vocal about super PACs that, during his 2010 State of the Union speech, he accused the Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in the Citizens United case of reversing a century of law that would "open the floodgates for special interests." But the success of Republicans raising money changed the stakes.

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