Politics & Policy

Obama’s Funny Money

Presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigning in 2008
In 2008, the president’s campaign-finance operation was highly suspect.

The media lionized Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for running as smoothly (and stylishly) as a Swiss watch. “We love things that are smart,” explained Time’s Mark Halperin, later the co-author of a best-selling book about the 2008 race, Game Change. At least Halperin had the courage also to deplore the pro-Obama tilt of the media during the campaign. At a post-election Politico/University of Southern California conference in 2008, he called it “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq War. It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama bias.”

Well, only now are we learning that things weren’t quite as “smart” as we were led to believe. Yesterday, it was reported the Federal Election Commission unanimously found that the 2008 Obama campaign had failed to properly report some $2 million in last-minute contributions. The campaign could still have to pay fines or face other penalties. (The audit for the 2008 John McCain campaign hasn’t yet been completed.)

#ad#Politico reports that the Obama campaign failed to respond to FEC inquires about whether its failure to report the donations was due to problems with its data-processing systems. Indeed, Team Obama has often been reticent in response to questions about its donor-identification procedures. In 2008, John McCain’s campaign publicly disclosed the identities of its entire donor base, including those contributing under $200, whose names are not legally required to be disclosed. But it was different over in Obamaworld. “We asked both campaigns for more information on small donors,” Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the liberal Center for Responsive Politics, told Newsmax. “The Obama campaign never responded.”

Because of its large number of small donations, the Obama campaign wound up not disclosing the donor names for about half of the $800 million it raised in 2008. Indeed, the Washington Post reported that it went so far as to turn off the Address Verification System (a credit-card verification protocol) on its website. That program would have prevented the campaign from accepting contributions by citizens of foreign countries — accepting such donations is a violation of federal law. The decision to abandon filters had consequences — an FEC inquiry forced the campaign to refund $31,110 to two Palestinian brothers in the Gaza Strip who had bought T-shirts from the campaign’s online store in small quantities. The Obama campaign said it had been unaware of any problems and always corrected errors when they were brought to its attention.

They said much the same thing after it was revealed in late 2008 that FEC analysts had written more than a dozen letters to the campaign flagging the names of hundreds of contributors for whom the Obama campaign either hadn’t supplied sufficient information or whose donations exceeded legal limits.

An even more disturbing issue arose when the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in August 2008 that Obama’s campaign had paid $832,000 to Citizens Services Inc., a subsidiary of ACORN, the infamous liberal advocacy group known for voter-registration fraud, which, in the 1990s, employed Barack Obama as a trainer and as its lawyer in a key voting case. ACORN declared bankruptcy in 2010 after a video sting operation showed some of its employees offering career advice to a couple posing as a prostitute and her pimp.

#page#Citizens Services Inc. was paid by the Obama campaign to perform one of the group’s specialties — “get-out-the-vote” projects — but somehow the Obama campaign listed the payments as going to “advance work” and event-staging. Blair Latoff, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, commented at the time: “Barack Obama’s failure to accurately report his campaign’s financial records is an incredibly suspicious situation that appears to be an attempt to hide his campaign’s interaction with a left-wing organization previously convicted of voter fraud. For a candidate who claims to be practicing ‘new’ politics, his FEC reports look an awful lot like the ‘old style’ Chicago politics of yesterday.” A spokesman for the Obama campaign said any errors were inadvertent and would be immediately corrected.

#ad#ACORN and Team Obama were linked again in October 2008, when Anita MonCrief, a former Washington staffer for Project Vote, another subsidiary of ACORN, testified in a court case in Pennsylvania. She claimed that she was told by her supervisor that a list of possible Project Vote donors she was given had come from the Obama campaign. MonCrief testified she was also given a “development plan” that explained how Project Vote was to solicit support from maxed-out Obama donors, and she was tasked with carrying it out. The Obama campaign denied any connection to ACORN. “Our campaign has not coordinated with ACORN whatsoever on any voter-registration activities,” said Obama spokesman Sean Smith at the time.

Almost none of this was reported in the mainstream media during the 2008 campaign. Many reporters were apparently still caught up in the historic nature of the Obama campaign and uninterested in digging too diligently inside it. According to Mark Halperin, the pro-Obama bias he so deplored was often evident in the subtle choices of which stories were covered and where investigative resources were deployed. “I am struck that there has been more media scrutiny of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s time on the Wasilla, Alaska, City Council in the last seven weeks than there has been of Barack Obama’s time in Mayor Daley’s Chicago over the last seven months,” he told attendees at a pre-election conference in 2008 sponsored by Time and CNN.

Here’s hoping that the continued revelations about Barack Obama’s shifty or sloppy first presidential campaign prompts some increased media attention on the Obama 2012 campaign. Just because a campaign preaches disclosure and transparency doesn’t necessarily mean it will practice them.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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