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President Barack Obama’s decision to collect unlimited corporate cash for his inauguration, and to disclose less about donors than he did four years ago, has triggered broad speculation about what he really plans to do with the money.
Theories range from the claim that Obama is getting a jump-start on funding his presidential library to conjecture that leftover campaign cash will prop up his grass-roots organizing operation, reportedly to be renamed Organizing for Action. Some say that it may even line the pockets of loyal campaign consultants.
Any one of those theories could be true, given that inaugural festivities operate largely outside campaign finance rules. There are effectively no restrictions on what Obama may do with leftover inauguration funds, and no requirements that he publicly report how any of the money is actually spent.
The Federal Election Commission requires full disclosure of all inaugural donors, though the reporting deadline is not until three months after the event. But while donations must be disclosed, expenditures need not be.
Four years ago, Obama voluntarily imposed a ban on corporate inaugural funds and set a $50,000 cap on individual donations. His inaugural committee also released the names of donors and their occupations and addresses well in advance.
This time, the president is accepting unlimited corporate funds, and donors in the $75,000 to $1 million range are being rewarded with exclusive concerts, parties and reserved seating. The Presidential Inaugural Committee has posted a bare-bones list of “benefactors” on its website, but it does not include titles or addresses. Contributions from lobbyists and political action committees remain banned, as are donations from corporations that received funding from the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program but have not yet repaid it.
Still, government watchdogs have harshly criticized the new rules.
“It’s a deeply disturbing move, and a reversal from the positive steps they took in 2009,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Corporations make donations to events like the inaugural festivities because they get something back in return. It’s not a bribe, but they do expect to get their calls returned faster, their proposals viewed more favorably.”
At least two of the eight corporate donors on the inaugural committee’s list — AT&T Corp. and Microsoft Corp. — are the recipients of millions of dollars in federal contracts, USA Today has reported. Also on the list are several inside-the-Beltway Obama campaign bundlers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These include former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Roel Campos, a partner in the Washington offices of the Locke Lord law firm, whom Obama named to his Presidential Intelligence Advisory Board.