Organizing For Action, the non-profit outgrowth of the 2012 Obama For America campaign, returned a $100,000 check to a donor with a felony conviction that was reported by NBC News. The donor, Joseph Piacentile, was convicted of fraud in 1991, but had a pardon request pending before the Department of Justice. It appears his generosity was prompted by an OFA consultant's suggestion that he might get a personal introduction to President Obama. That staffer, Samantha Maltzman, has been dismissed.
From Michael Isikoff's report for NBC:
Maltzman had collected the check as part of an effort to raise money from big donors for an OFA dinner with President Barack Obama on Tuesday. She also took steps that could have kept the doctor’s cash secret, returning the check and asking Piacentile to write a new one to another political nonprofit that she described as “one of our partner organizations.”
The network obtained emails that show Piacentile sent OFA a check after Maltzman stated that for "those that raise or write $100K, there will be small clutch with the president" at an OFA event earlier this week. The email was received by a friend of Piacentile, who then decided to donate. Piacentile likely found the idea of facetime with Obama appealing, given that he is actively trying to get a pardon for that 1991 conviction.
That event was held at a D.C. hotel and was not a fundraiser, OFA told NBC. But after giving prepared remarks, Isikoff says, "Obama shook hands with selected attendees and then met with a smaller group that included major donors." OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan told Isikoff that "No one is or has ever been authorized to offer opportunities to meet with administration principals in exchange for a donation to the organization."
When OFA sprang into existence last spring, this was precisely the sort of scenario that critics warned about: donors giving money in exchange for access or favors. At first, OFA declared that it would not identify corporate donors to the group, which, since it's a 501(c)(4) non-profit, it doesn't legally have to do. In the face of criticism following that decision, OFA's chairman (and Obama 2012 campaign manager) Jim Messina quickly backtracked, announcing that the organization would list those donors on its website.
That website is barackobama.com, so you can see why Piacentile might be confused. Earlier this month, The Wire pointed out that OFA has in some regards apparently intentionally blurred the line between itself and the president. Its Twitter account, for example, is verified as Barack Obama, despite his not controlling or, in the recent past, tweeting from it. OFA takes advantage of this lack of clarity to send out petitions — usually linked to fundraising appeals — as though from Obama himself.
What Maltzman did is inappropriate by OFA's standards, and she was reprimanded. But it reinforces the challenges of operating an organization that assumes the trappings of the presidency. It may be good for fundraising, but the downside is substantial.
Update, 4:30 p.m.: OFA's Hogan offered The Wire this statement.
Under its fundraising policies, that require vigorous vetting of all donations, OFA did not accept a donation from the donor in question, nor did he attend the February 25 event. Under those same 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."
We hold ourselves to the highest standards. In this case we fell short. While we did not accept the donation in question, and while we did not provide any benefit to anyone in exchange for a donation, we take seriously how we present ourselves as a grassroots policy advocacy organization. So we have taken the necessary steps to address this situation and will build on this experience to assure that it will not be repeated.
She also clarified two details of this piece that I got wrong. The check was returned before NBC asked, and the donor policy change was only in regards to corporate donors. Those details have been updated.