April 17, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Rules of the Game: Obama's Nonprofit Carries on Dubious Tradition

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Obamaís nonprofit advocacy arm, Organizing for America, has drawn criticism from watchdog groups that say it sets a dangerous precedent.

A Democratic rising star who campaigned on a platform of sweeping ethics changes draws fire once in power, after his top campaign donors bankroll a secretive nonprofit promoting his agenda.

Sound familiar? Itís a story that should ring a bell for New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whoís weathered a storm of bad press since he took office in 2011 over a tax-exempt group known as the Committee to Save New York thatís spent some $17 million touting his policies on TV.

Like Organizing for Action, President Barack Obamaís controversial nonprofit advocacy arm, the Committee to Save New York is organized as a (501)(c)(4) social welfare group, and it has drawn fire from watchdogs complaining about transparency and special interest access. The New York groupís receipts include some $2 million from gambling interests with a stake in Cuomoís casino policies.

But unlike Obamaís group, the Committee to Save New York is sitting out its heroís latest round of budget fights. Instead, Cuomo has reportedly turned to the New York Democratic Party to help him raise some $5 million to push his budget priorities.

Itís a turnabout that Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, touted as ďa model for how things should be handled.Ē

Cuomoís story serves as both an example and a cautionary tale for Obama, whose nonprofit arm carries on a long, if dubious, tradition of politically connected nonprofit groups that have heaped trouble on the elected officials who ran them.

These range from the Citizens for the Republic Education and Research Foundation, a nonprofit that grew out of Ronald Reaganís 1976 presidential campaign that eventually ran afoul of the Federal Election Commission, to Celebrations for Children, a charity that provided a convenient vehicle for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to raise big money at the 2004 GOP Convention. DeLay set out to reward the charityís donors with parties and yacht cruises, but he dropped that plan amid public outcry.

Organizers for Obamaís group attempted to mollify critics last week when they announced that the nonprofit would take no corporate or foreign donations and would report all contributions of $250 or more every quarter. Far from promoting special interest access, the groupís ďmission is to put the power back in the hands of the American people,Ē National Chairman Jim Messina insisted in an email to OFA supporters.

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