March 11, 2014, by Justin Sink @ The Hill
A campaign finance reform group is calling on President Obama to shut down the political advocacy organization born out of his reelection campaign, after it admitted last week to violating its own fundraising standards.
In a letter sent to President Obama on Tuesday, watchdog group Democracy 21 called Organizing for Action (OFA) "a direct threat to the integrity" of Obama's presidency and said reports about the fundraising missteps "raise multiple, serious concerns" about the influence of the group.
"Democracy 21 strongly urges you to shut down Organizing for Action or, alternatively, to end any relationship that you and your Administration have with OFA," the group wrote.
Last week, OFA announced it was revamping its solicitation practices and had fired a top fundraiser after an NBC News report revealed emails between the group and New Jersey businessman Munr Kazmir explicitly listing prices to attend a summit last week with the president.
The emails conflicted with a pledge from former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who wrote in an op-ed last year that “we can't and we won't guarantee access to any government officials.”
While Kazmir ultimately did not donate to the group, the NBC News investigation revealed he did attempt to deliver a $100,000 donation from a New Jersey physician, Dr. Joseph Piacentile.)
The check was returned because Piacentile has been convicted of Medicare fraud, but Kazmir was asked to have Piacentile donate the money instead to America Votes, a partner organization that, unlike OFA, does not disclose its donors.
The organization subsequently admitted it was the third time fundraisers had asked for donations to be diverted to other progressive groups.
OFA Director Jon Carson also arranged for Kazmir to meet with White House aide Yohannes Abraham, the chief of staff of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Ashley Green, who works on international education issues at the Agency for International Development.
In response to the revelations, OFA sent an internal memo to staff earlier this month reiterating that no member of the group is authorized to offer supporters opportunities to meet with administration officials or to suggest that a donation to the group is a prerequisite to summits featuring the president or other administration officials.
The memo also outlined a new policy under which OFA will no longer recommend to supporters that donors make a financial contribution to another political organization.
In a statement, Carson said he “fell short” in meeting his responsibility “to assure that no question about our standards could even be reasonably raised.”
“We have strengthened our policies to prevent an issue like this from ever reoccurring and to ensure that our sole focus in cities and states across the country is promoting the issues the American people voted for in 2012 and accomplishing a national progressive agenda,” Carson said.
Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for the group, stressed that OFA never accepted a donation from Kazmir and noted Piacentile did not attend the event late last month featuring Obama. She also stressed that, under OFA policies “no one is or has ever been authorized to offer opportunities to meet with administration officials in exchange for a donation to the organization.”
But Democracy 21 charges in its letter that the missteps "constituted a fundamental violation of the integrity of the office of the presidency."
"The public has no way of knowing how many other occasions there have been since OFA was created where OFA may have sold access to the White House or to government agencies," the group writes. "Under current circumstances, there is also no way to ensure that the sale of access by OFA will not happen again in the future."
This is not the first time OFA has faced scrutiny from watchdog groups for its fundraising practices and ties to the White House.
After a disputed report last year in The New York Times claimed that donors who gave $500,000 would be guaranteed quarterly access to the president, and a $50,000 donation was required to attend a founder's summit, Common Cause President Bob Edgar accused Obama of perpetuating “the pay-to-play politics he has reportedly deplored.”