New Obama grassroots group has watchdogs concerned

The 2012 elections have been over for months, but a new grassroots organization supporting President Barack Obama has campaign watchdogs concerned that the campaign has only just begun.

Even Sen. Sherrod Brown, a fellow Democrat, has qualms.

“I would like to see limits on this,” he said. “I would like to see full disclosure and I hope that is what the White House is doing.”

Brown, who had at least $40 million spent against him by outside groups during his 2012 campaign against Republican Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, said he hopes the new Obama organization is a grassroots group, rather than one that focuses its dollars on large-scale TV ads.

“I don’t know yet enough about what they’re going to do, but I’m always concerned when this much money is being spent,” the senator said. “There’s too much corporate money in politics, and there’s not nearly the transparency that there should be.”

In January, Obama supporters formed Organizing for Action, a post-election organization created largely of those who supported him during the 2012 election. According to its website, the group “will support the legislative agenda we voted on, train the next generation of grassroots organizers and leaders, and organize around local issues in our communities.”

The rub for watchdogs is this: The group is organized as a 501(c)4 tax-exempt “social welfare” organization, meaning it’s not legally required to disclose its donors or contributions, as it would’ve under federal election laws. Group organizers, however, have said they plan to disclose donors who give more than $250.

Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager who is now national chairman of the new group, wrote on last week that the group will disclose donors every three months, along with how much they donated. He added that the organization will also reject contributions from corporations and foreign donors.

“We’ll mobilize to support the president’s agenda, but we won’t do so on behalf of political candidates,” he wrote, describing the organization as an issue advocacy group. The new “OFA” follows the official campaign group “Obama for America,” which followed “Organizing For America” set up during Obama’s first term, which followed “Obama for America” from the 2008 campaign.

But watchdogs remain concerned about reports that those who give or raise more than $500,000 will be named to a White House advisory panel.

“This organization is a very dangerous and unprecedented vehicle which creates opportunities or corruption and the appearance of corruption,” said Fred Wertheimer of watchdog Democracy 21, saying the organization creates an “arm” of the presidency. “It creates potential opportunities to buy influence over government decisions.”

Nonsense, said William Todd, a Columbus-area lawyer and former Republican mayoral candidate who has worked on Democratic and Republican campaigns. He said the organization is the next logical step from what Bill and Hillary Clinton did when they left the White House – maintaining a database of Democratic supporters, voters and donors.

“They had control of the names, who the givers were, that’s what we’re seeing here,” he said, adding that Obama “is starting to plan for the future beyond the White House.”

In 2012, tax exempt 501(c)4 groups such as the Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads organization became prominent by multimillion-dollar TV ad campaigns. Todd sees Organizing for Action as more of a grassroots organization.

He said while reports of the $500,000 advisory panel trouble him, the organization itself does not seem inappropriate. Obama, he said, will have a “megaphone” for issues that are important to him.

“This is a way for Obama to maintain his brand and influence, not just through 2014 but in 2016 and beyond,” he said. “He’ll be a relatively young man when he steps down as president. He’s going to want to have an impact on the political debate.”

Bob Edgar of watchdog Common Cause said the new Obama group is all the more disappointing because the president has been particularly critical of outside money in politics in the past. He had hoped Obama would repair the campaign financing system.

He said by forming the group, Obama has expressed a “complicit” endorsement of the very practices he has criticized. He calls it “Organizing for a Perpetual Campaign.”

“This is like selling the Lincoln bedroom without the sheets,” Edgar said.