By Mark Lisheron | Watchdog
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lobbyists for the nation’s largest labor unions have had the run of the White House during its occupancy by a president who pledged from his first day in office to curb political influence.
At the same time President Obama personally limited access to the wealthy and powerful, including labor leaders, union lobbyists made nearly 500 visits to the White House during the Obama administration. The records, according to a review of available White House visitors logs, run through June..
The Franklin Center created a database of the 879,401 visits by people who came to the White House for an official event or meeting from nearly 3 millions entries made up mostly of tourists.
The log was ballyhooed by the White House as “transparency like you’ve never seen before.” Indeed, it is difficult to make a comparison of official visits to the White House because past administrations didn’t provide White House logs.
The fight with the U.S. Secret Service, which maintains the visitors log, continues in U.S. Appeals Court. The wholesale excising of visitors from the logs, the reasons for visits, the 90 days the government is allowed before it must release the latest entries makes a mockery of the Freedom of Information Act, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
Fitton calls the visitors log, such as it is, a publicity stunt.
“If the president has some issue with a certain entry in the visitors log, how are we to know what’s been done about it,” he said. “You have to be careful about the conclusions you draw from the logs.”
The log provides the visitor’s name and who invited him, the number of people included in the visit, the time and date and which room in the White House the visit took place. Sometimes, but not very often, the entry will include the reason for the visit — a Kennedy Center awards gala or a United States World Cup team photo-op with the president, for example.
As is the case with all huge but limited databases, the White House visitors log can be made to tell limitless but necessarily incomplete stories, its blank spaces begging for narratives to fill them.
What, we wondered, could the log tell us looking for the names of some of the heaviest hitters in President Obama’s orbit — his biggest donors, the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America, the leaders of the 10 largest labor unions in the country and their key lobbyists?
We looked at nearly all of the 1,326 entries we found, 677 for billionaires, seven for top union officials and 49 for big-time donors.
But the influence of unions on this White House might better be explained by the roughly 500 entries of names that track with the lobbying registrations for organized labor.
Recently, Anna Palmer of Politico wrote that President Obama had gone further than any president in keeping lobbyists out of the White House.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz told The Daily Beast, “This administration has adopted the strongest ethics policy in history, beginning on the [p]resident’s first day in office when he implemented unprecedented reforms to reduce the influence of the revolving door in Washington. In all instances, the administration takes steps as to avoid any conflicts of interest. Both past and present members of the administration have contributed to a successful record of compliance.”
The White House logs suggest the president made an exception for union lobbyists.
Fitting that with all the talk from this White House of transparency, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to open government, offers a search engine, Influence Explorer, that has volumes on labor unions, including lists of each of their top lobbyists.
By an amazing coincidence nearly every one of the names on the lobbyist lists matched up with names of White House visitors, nearly 500 times.
The visitors log can’t say for certain which Charles Loveless came to the White House 32 times since September 2009, meeting nearly every time in small groups with staff like Nate Tamarin, White House liaison to labor unions. There is, however, a Charles Loveless who happens to lobby for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
A Rebecca Levin came to the White House 25 times, mostly in 2009 and early 2010, as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was kicking in. This Levin met with Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council, and Frank DiGiammarino, who was then the deputy to the special adviser to the president for recovery implementation.
At that same time, a Rebecca Levin lobbied for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
It’s hard to imagine there being another Kristor Cowan, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers. If they are one and the same, Cowan made his way to the White House 22 times, once for a small-group meeting at the invitation of the president himself, most of them in the past two years.
A David L. Mallino had a small-group visit with the president, nine in small group meetings with staff and 15 visits in all. There is a David L. Mallino Sr. who lobbies for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He and his son, David L. Mallino Jr., work for the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
Michael Wessel, a name that shows up in the visitor logs for 19 visits, mostly intimate meetings with staff, also happens to be the same name as a lobbyist for the Communication Workers of America.
And how odd for the Service Employees International Union to employ four lobbyists with the same names — Christy Hoffman, Desiree Hoffman, Andrea Larue and Alan Lopatin — as four people who show up on the visitors log at least 10 times each.
Labor leaders, too, have made themselves at home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Joseph T. Hansen, a humble Milwaukee meat cutter who rose through the ranks to head the 1.3-million member United Food and Commercial Workers International, has been to the White House an astonishing 31 times.
Hansen can claim a reason: a seat on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, although he was invited by the president at least three times before his appointment in 2010.
The chairman of the Council, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, has been to the White House 33 times.
The White House has hosted James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters 22 times; Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union,15 times; Edwin Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 13 visits; Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, and Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 10 times.
Michael Smith, a prominent labor historian at Wayne State University in Detroit, said these White House visits represent a victory for labor.
“With some few exceptions, the Republicans wrote off labor when George Bush was elected,” Smith said. “Even Ronald Reagan, who took on the flight controllers union, had a better relationship with labor than just about any current Republican. The fact is that Obama has held more meetings with union leaders than the previous president, who I believe held none.”
A closer look at the logs, however, shows that whatever your wealth, your influence or the political debt owed to you, you should not have expected an invitation to get close and personal from the president.
People like Oprah Winfrey, the media magnate and television star, Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, and George Kaiser, an Obama campaign bundler and mega-rich oil and gas man, come and go hundreds of times throughout this administration.
But the president extended invitations to those influential people to meet individually or in groups of 10 or fewer guests only 35 times over nearly four years, according to the log.
Jobs Council and all, Hansen met just twice in small groups with Obama, Henry twice and Hoffa just once.
Warren Buffett, whose millions helped elect Obama, has met with the president in a small setting twice. Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, many of whose jobs the president saved with a bailout, has gotten intimate just once.
George Soros is just one on a long list of the biggest donors, staunchest allies, the richest and most powerful people still waiting for their invitation.
Penny Pritzker, the national finance chairman who is generally thought to have had the most to do with Obama’s election in 2008, logged three personally invited one-on-one or small group visits. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York and the former head of the president’s Domestic Policy Council, met three times personally with the president. Obama also granted three audiences to Michael Dell.
We are left to assume this is the Michael Dell, because, it might bear mentioning, the visitors log provides no other identifier other than a first and last name. And from the entries it becomes clear quickly the middle initials included are suspect.
But assuming it is the real Mortimer Zuckerman, Paul Allen and Warren Buffett, what are we to make of this paltry number of invitations from the president himself?
David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Barack Obama: The Story,” one of the most authoritative biographies of the president, said those numbers fit neatly into a narrative that has grown up around his relentless campaigning.
Obama has during the past 18 months attended 222 fundraisers that will generate more than $1 billion, smashing all previous records for a president, ABC News reported. He has made it clear, however, that he is quite uncomfortable using White House access as a quid pro quo.
Maraniss, who has the vantage of a previous Democratic presidency, having written “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton,” said he found some of Obama’s biggest supporters perplexed and frustrated by the lack of access.
“I don’t think it’s devious on his part, withholding access,” Maraniss said. “I think it’s noble and debilitating at the same time. I think he doesn’t want those powerful people to get too close. I think that’s who he is.”
There might be no better example from the visitors log than Penny Pritzker, with 66 entries, by far, the single most frequent visitor among this select group. Pritzker, a member of the president’s Council on Foreign Relations and his Economic Recovery Advisory Board, made 50 visits to the White House, invited by the president, aides or others, in small and large groups in the first two years. Since then the number dropped to 16, just six in 2012 through June.
The New York Times took note of her disappearance in July with Obama donors concerned about what it meant for his re-election.
Fred Eychaner, the founder of Newsweb Corp., so far in this election cycle has donated $1.5 million to Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Clearly, the president thinks fondly of Eychaner, having personally invited him to the White House 14 times.
None of those visits had a guest list of fewer than 290 people.
George Soros is a more prickly matter, having become a polarizing public figure regardless of the millions he has donated for years to Obama and Democrats, said Patrick Brennan, who writes about presidential issues for National Review.
“He might well respect Soros and appreciate all he’s done, but the right has made it impossible for President Obama to invite George Soros, given how toxic his reputation is,” Brennan said. “If it were Romney, I never would expect him to invite the Koch brothers to the White House. Never.”
Those close to the campaign told New Yorker magazine writer Jane Mayer in “Schmooze or Lose,” a lengthy piece in the Aug. 27 issue, Obama might have kept his biggest donors at arms length too long to help him. Instead, some big donors turned to his opponent, Mitt Romney.
Mayer said those she interviewed shared the same frustrations about access to the president as Maraniss. And like Maraniss, Bert Rockman, a professor of political science at Purdue University, concluded that it is character rather than calculation moving Obama.
“Obama is a completely different personality than either of his two immediate predecessors, Bush and Clinton, and for that matter, Poppa Bush and Reagan,” Rockman said. “You would probably have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find a president of similar temperament. Clinton and W were ‘people’ presidents in the sense that they felt comfortable with the hand holding, back scratching, and the recognizing your pain and needs elements of politics. Above all, their recognition that with big donations come big egos that need to be stroked.”
This grand narrative of Obama’s ambivalence toward money and power, however, collapses if you expand the visitors log search to the president’s top aides and officials. The rich and generous have come to the White House hundreds of times, meeting with key officials and aides close to the president.
Marc Lasry, a billionaire fundraiser for Obama’s 2012 campaign, has met only once in a small group with the president but has been visiting regularly for three years.
Thomas F. Steyer, billionaire senior director of investments for Farallon Capital Management, was a delegate and a speaker at this past Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. He has been outspoken on federal policy closely regulating what he calls “dirty energy companies.”
Each of his eight White House visits have been by himself or with one other person, seven of them with White House chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel, William Daley and Pete Rouse and David Lane, counselor to the chief of staff.
Steyer is, not coincidentally, a major donor to Obama and to Democratic candidates at the state and federal levels.
Haim Saban, the media mogul and very close friend of former President Bill Clinton, met alone with Obama’s chief of staff William Daley on Dec. 1, 2011, and once in 2010 with Tony Blinken, national security policy adviser for Vice President Joe Biden.
The Israeli-American Saban spent millions to start the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and has used his money and influence to promote U.S. support for Israel.
On Sept. 4, the New York Times carried an op-ed piece written by Saban telling the world he would be voting for Obama in November because “by every tangible measure, his support for Israel’s security and well-being has been rock solid.”
A little more than two weeks later Obama nominated Saban’s wife, Cheryl, to represent her country in the next General Assembly of the United Nations.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt, a big donor to Obama and other Democratic candidates, has visited the White House eight times, five of those times in meetings alone with a high-ranking staffer.
David Shaw, the billionaire founder of the technology development fund, D. E. Shaw & Co., has been there six times, twice in one-on-one meetings with a top aide, according to the logs.
Sometimes the visitors log demonstrates how money and power work together. Visitor Thomas Pritzker, Penny’s cousin, executive chairman of Hyatt Hotels and a reliable Democratic Party donor, is also a member of the board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national defense and security consultancy.
Microsoft’s Allen financed the first private sub-orbital space mission and is now bankrolling a space project called Stratolaunch Systems. Is it any wonder that he could manage a White House visit with Brig. Gen. Julie A. Bentz, director of strategic capabilities policy for the president’s national security staff, or Groslyn Burton, a national security staff special assistant?
Much of the heavy traffic involving the powerful — is coordinated by staff members who work for something called the Office of Public Engagement. The department is stamped all over with the president’s mantra of the most open and participatory government in American history.
But while the stated goal of the office is to “coordinate opportunities for direct dialogue between the Obama Administration and the American public, while bringing new voices to the table and ensuring that everyone can participate and inform the work of the president,” even a quick survey of the visitors log demonstrates that much of its work entails bringing old and familiar voices to the table.
Or in the case of Valerie Jarrett rerouting those old and familiar voices to your table. Jarrett, listed as just another employee in the Engagement Office, took visits from White House guests 1,652 times.
Jarrett visited at the president’s invitation 41 times, comparable to the number of visits by Obama’s fours chiefs of staff, Rahm Emanuel, Pete Rouse, William Daley and Jack Lew.
Not surprisingly, one anonymous senior White House official told the New York Times in a story last month, “She is the single most influential person in the Obama White House.”
And yet this single most influential person does not show up once meeting with the president in a group of fewer than 14 people.
In his research for the Obama biography, Maraniss came across several important people confounded by Jarrett’s role, her lack of definable title. But mostly, her blockading decisions.
“I’m not sure what the strategy is for her as a buffer for the president,” Maraniss said. “But I can tell you that there is frustration and a feeling that as a liaison to the president, Valerie Jarrett is not particularly effective.”
Whatever the log might suggest about the machinations of this administration or the internal workings of the president isn’t nearly as transparent as what it says about the inevitability of political influence.
“If there is any conclusion you can draw from the visitors logs it is that people sophisticated enough to have business with the government will have business with the government,” Fitton said. “The White House is only one vehicle to get things done.”