Senior White House officials, including Obama’s Dep. Chief of Staff Jim Messina, reportedly met with healthcare lobbyists at a Caribou Coffee near the White House to skirt their own transparency rules in the run-up to the passage of ObamaCare.
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By: Jennifer Epstein
House Republicans are accusing the Obama White House — and the president’s reelection campaign manager Jim Messina — of purposefully skirting disclosure rules and negating the administration’s often-repeated claim to be “the most transparent administration in history.”
A House Energy and Commerce report out Tuesday is stocked with emails sent from private addresses and meetings scheduled away from the building to avoid official record. Among these are several sent to a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist by Messina, then President Barack Obama’s then-deputy White House chief of staff, making promises about language for the health care reforms despite the resistance of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the measure.
“I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion,” Messina wrote Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) lobbyist Jeffrey Forbes from his personal account just days before the Affordable Care Act cleared Congress in March 2010. “As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the house. But there just isn’t 8-10 billion.”
The note related to the official business regarding an agreement reached by the Senate Finance Committee and PhRMA on the president’s health care law. Pelosi’s office referred to previous statements in which she declined to address the deal between the administration and PhRMA.
The interactions between the Finance Committee and PhRMA were detailed in an earlier report from the Energy and Commerce Committee, but Messina’s use of his private email address — at issue because he was conducting government business on a non-government, undisclosed account — is a new revelation. All official communication must be preserved under the Presidential Records Act. The committee report says the White House “has refused to verify” whether emails from White House staffers’ personal accounts were preserved.
Other emails released on Tuesday show Jeff Smith, a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, offering to meet with Jim Kirkland, an executive from the GPS industry, off the White House grounds. LightSquared clashed with the GPS industry for years as it tried to get approval to use frequencies near those used by GPS. Republicans have alleged that contracts for LightSquared, which was backed by several major Democratic donors, had received preferential treatment from the White House.
“Jim – coffee at Caribou Coffee – across the corner from the WH – would work at 11:30 a.m. on Friday…plus getting you through the new WH security rules these days almost takes an act of Congress almost (and you know how well that’s going these days),” Smith wrote. “[P]lus you’d appear on an official WH Visitor List which is maybe not want [sic] you want at this stage …”
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said in a statement accompanying the report that he isn’t alleging illegal activity — just that the administration’s actions has fallen far short of its transparency promises.
“What we have learned from our many investigations is that, time and again, the Obama administration’s actions have failed to match the president’s lofty rhetoric on transparency,” Stearns said.
White House officials’ practice of offering to meet with visitors somewhere other than the West Wing has been reported by multiple news organizations, including POLITICO and The New York Times, which in 2010 reported that hundreds of meetings had taken place at the Caribou location across the street from the White House suggested by Smith.
Rick Weiss, the director of strategic communications for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a statement that “Jeff Smith played no role in the LightSquared-GPS process.”
After POLITICO published a story in February 2011 on meetings arranged at offices on Jackson Place near the White House, White House press secretary Jay Carney said “the guiding principle here is transparency, and we believe that — nobody is, that I’m aware of, is hiding where they’re meeting.”
“It is routine for the White House officials to meet with all types of people, including lobbyists, and frequently here,” Carney said. “The suggestion that we’re not being transparent is laughable given the unbelievable precedent this administration has set in its — closing the door, the revolving door, and releasing these records.”
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Eric Schultz wouldn’t directly respond to the Republicans’ report and pointed to the administration’s record of transparency, including posting visitor logs on the White House website — the same records that Smith appeared to be trying to avoid.
“From the day he took office, the president committed his administration to work towards unprecedented openness in government. Over the past three years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives, and to solicit public participation in government decision-making and thus tap the expertise that resides outside of government,” Schultz said.
He added: “While creating a more open government requires sustained effort, our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people.”
The Obama campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.