Democratic Party leaked emails reveal inner workings of fundraising

July 25, 2016 9:30 am

White House officials said President Barack Obama’s attendance at DNC events is well within the law. Photo / AP

In the rush for big donations to pay for this week’s Democratic
convention, a party staffer contacted Tennessee donor Roy Cockrum in May
with a special offer: the chance to attend a roundtable discussion with
President Barack Obama.
Cockrum, already a major Democratic
contributor, was in. He gave an additional $33,400. And eight days
later, he was assigned a place across the table from Obama at the
Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington, according to a seating chart
sent to the White House.
The 28-person gathering drew rave reviews from the wealthy party financiers who attended.
“Wonderful
event yesterday,” New York lawyer Robert Pietrzak wrote to his
Democratic National Committee contact. “A lot of foreign policy,
starting with my question on China. The President was in great form.”

The details of the high-dollar event were captured in the
trove of internal DNC emails released by the site WikiLeaks that has
riled the party as delegates gather in Philadelphia to nominate Hillary
Clinton.
Internal discussions of the May 18 event with Obama and
other aggressive efforts to woo major donors reveal how the drive for
big money consumes the political parties as they scramble to keep up in
the age of super PACs.
The DNC emails show how the party has
tried to leverage its greatest weapon – the President – as it entices
wealthy backers to bankroll the convention and other needs. At times,
DNC staffers used language in their pitches to donors that went beyond
what lawyers said was permissible under White House policy designed to
curtail the perception that special interests have access.
Top
aides also get involved in wooing contributors, according to the emails.
White House political director David Simas, for instance, met in May
with a half-dozen top party financiers in Chicago, including Fred
Eychaner, one of the top Democratic donors in the country, the documents
show.
White House officials said Obama’s attendance at DNC events is well within the law and the Administration’s own ethics policies.
“As
presidents of both parties have done for decades, President Obama takes
seriously his role as the head of the Democratic Party,” White House
spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said. “To this end, the President
participates in a range of events to raise awareness and support for the
party, and to outline his priorities for making progress for the
American people, in line with federal election and ethics laws.”
The
leaked emails reveal the relentless art of donor maintenance that
undergirds the system: the flattery, cajoling and favour-bestowing that
goes into winning rich supporters. It’s a practice that the party
fundraisers themselves often find dispiriting.
“He’s just awful
and if I could have him sitting outside of the room, I absolutely would
have,” a DNC finance staffer said of one Florida donor attending the May
18 event with Obama.
DNC finance officials did not respond to
requests for comment. A party spokesman said the DNC had “revolutionised
online fundraising and worked to rein in the influence of special
interests” during Obama’s time in office. The spokesman said the DNC,
while seeking to broaden its donor base to keep up with the Koch
brothers and other wealthy conservative interests, had taken steps to
“prevent any improper attempt to influence government policy”.
The
DNC and its Republican counterpart have both stepped up their hunt for
huge cheques since a series of legal changes in 2014 gave them leeway to
collect expansive contributions for new accounts to pay for building,
legal and convention expenses.
The top-tier donor package for
this week’s Democratic National Convention required a donor to raise
US$1.25 million or give US$467,600 since January 2015, according to a
document in the emails.
In return, a contributor got booking in
Philadelphia at a premier hotel, VIP credentials and six slots at “an
exclusive roundtable and campaign briefing with high-level Democratic
officials,” according to the terms.
Those perks were aggressively
pushed to donors this spring as DNC staffers worked to try to pay for
the party’s share of the convention, a tab that had been covered by
public funds in previous years.
When Pietrzak, who had already
given his annual maximum to the party, expressed interest in attending
the May 18 event with Obama, a party staffer responded to her colleague:
“No chance of getting more $ out of them, is there? Push the convention
packages as an incentive?”
Pietrzak and other donors did not respond to requests for comment.
The
emails also show the intensive efforts to get corporations to sign on
as sponsors of the convention’s host committee – a reversal from 2012,
when Obama prohibited such donations.
Last year, the DNC, in
consultation with Clinton’s campaign, also decided to reverse a ban on
donations from the PACs of corporations, unions and other groups.
After
those limits were lifted, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and
other top party officials showered corporate lobbyists with calls,
emails and personal meetings seeking convention support and PAC
contributions to the party, according to a spreadsheet logging the
contacts.
In one May email, a DNC finance staffer asked whether
the conglomerate Honeywell could get a hotel room in Philadelphia for a
US$60,000 donation to the host committee.
“This is $60k we
definitely wouldn’t get otherwise and Honeywell is the biggest PAC
contributor in the country,” she wrote, adding: “They’re definitely a
bit pissy about our PAC policy flip flop and that offering this gesture
would definitely help our relationships with them for later in the
election cycle and for years to come.”
The chance to build the event around the President in May set off a race inside the DNC finance office to recruit new donors.
“Have
at it with Potus. Prefer at a hotel. No pacs and no lobbyists,” finance
director Jordan Kaplan wrote to one of his deputies, Alexandra Shapiro,
at the beginning of the month, adding: “This will probably be our only
event in May. Lot of eyes on this one.”
“Wow! Really?” she responded excitedly, adding three applauding emoji.
Shapiro
passed along the message about the event to her colleagues: “New money
is the priority so if you have folks that are sitting on their max out,
this may be a way to get them in,” she wrote.
Before the
invitation was sent, an associate at Perkins Coie, the DNC’s outside law
firm, weighed in with a caution on the language.

New money is the priority so if you have folks that are sitting on their max out, this may be a way to get them in

Alexandra Shapiro

“Let’s
remove the word round table on page 2 at the top (‘$33,400 – Round
table discussion guest’),” Ruthzee Louijeune emailed Scott Comers, the
DNC’s finance chief of staff. “As you know, WH policy restricts the use
of language that gives the appearance that contributors can pay for
policy access to the President.”
But the emails show several
instances in which DNC fundraisers pitched donors with promises of a
“roundtable” chat with Obama. On May 6, the southern finance director
emailed Cockrum, the Tennessee donor, about packages available for the
Philadelphia convention.
“If [you] were willing to contribute
$33,400 we can bump you up a level to the Fairmont,” he wrote, referring
to a luxury hotel. “Additionally, your generous contribution would
allow you to attend a small roundtable we are having with President
Obama in DC on May 18th or a dinner in NYC on June 8th.”
On the
afternoon of the event, the place of honour, at Obama’s side, went to
New York philanthropist Phil Munger. Kaplan noted to Shapiro in an email
that Munger was one of the largest donors to Organising for Action, a
nonprofit group that advocates for Obama’s legislative agenda.
“It
would be nice to take care of him from the DNC side,” Kaplan wrote,
adding: “He is looking to give his money in new places and I would like
that to be to us.”
DNC officials said there are no discussions
with the nonprofit organisation about its donors, noting that Munger’s
support to the group is disclosed online.
Before the event,
Simas, the White House political director, received a briefing from the
DNC on what to expect of the contributors attending.
“They are
interested in a conversation focused on business and economic concerns
but many are also committed to education and social issues,” the memo
read.
The next day, Shapiro told her colleague that the event had been a success.
“Q&A
went well, very foreign affairs focused,” she wrote. “Dick got two
questions in and Bill Eacho was very pleased with his seat. He seemed
very open to the idea of doing something for us in the future, too.
Thank you again for your help on this one! We raised a good chunk of
change which was nice for a change (sorry for the pun, I had to).”

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