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 Committee 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 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. . . . 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 …” . . .
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.”
The Obama administration did make at least one concrete concession to transparency, releasing White House visitor logs, but as this story demonstrates, this can backfire or be utterly ineffective in a number of ways. David Frum aptly described these issues on hearing the new rules in a 2009 column, pointing out that new transparency regulations waste huge amounts of time, don’t really reveal much more about what’s really going on in the government, and, well, basically just make executive-branch staffers faithful patrons of Pennsylvania Avenue coffee shops (as Frum himself found out).