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Watchdog Demands Obama Shut Down White House-Backed Group

by Michael Isikoff /  / Updated 

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A campaign finance watchdog group today called on President Obama to shut down or dissociate himself from Organizing for Action, the White House-backed political non-profit, charging that recent disclosures by NBC News about its fundraising show the organization is “a direct threat to the integrity of your presidency.”

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a non-partisan group that advocates for campaign reform, said in a letter to the president that the recent disclosures suggest that Organizing for Action or OFA “has been selling direct access to you and to your White House in return for huge contributions.”

The letter focuses in part on a meeting that Jon Carson, the executive director of OFA, arranged with a White House official for a New Jersey businessman who was seeking help for a legal dispute he was having with a federal agency over a $2.5 million loan for a school in Pakistan.

According to emails obtained by NBC News, Carson arranged for the businessman, Munr Kazmir, to meet with a White House aide at a coffee shop across from the White House on Jan. 28 to discuss the loan issue. The next day, Kazmir emailed an OFA fundraiser saying he was committed to raising funds for an OFA dinner with President Obama in February, writing, “I have a $100K commitment solid.”

In the past two weeks, OFA has fired one of its fundraisers and revamped its fundraising practices over the NBC News disclosures. Although no action was ultimately taken to help the businessman, Carson acknowledged in a statement that “I fell short in meeting my responsibility as the executive director of OFA to assure that no question about our standards could even be reasonably raised.”

OFA was founded last year from the remnants of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. The campaign group Organizing for America morphed into Organizing for Action, taking over the “barackobama.com” web address as well as assuming control of the campaign’s vast computer database. It is chaired by Jim Messina, the president’s former campaign manager. Billing itself as a “grassroots advocacy” group on behalf of the president’s agenda, the group has raised $26 million -- in part through appearances by the president at events that include volunteers and high-dollar donors.

Wertheimer and other campaign watchdog groups have criticized the arrangement from the outset, saying that the mere existence of a political organization with such close ties to the White House creates the opportunity for abuse and feeds perceptions that access to the president was up for sale.

In his new letter, Wertheimer notes that Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, last year disputed press reports suggesting that OFA was selling access to the president, telling reporters at a March 4, 2013 press briefing, “Any notion that there is a set price for a meeting with the president of the United States is just wrong.”

Yet, says Wertheimer, in a January 15 email about an upcoming OFA dinner with President Obama, one of the group’s fundraisers had written to Kazmir: “It is $25,000 per person to attend and for those who raise or write $100k, there will be a small clutch with the president.”

“Any way you look at it, this is a ‘set price for a meeting with the president of the United States,” Wertheimer wrote in the letter.

Asked for comment, OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan said in an email that "With over 400,000 contributors, an average contribution of under $40, and more than 4.4 million action takers, OFA is a leading force of grassroots activism in communities working to see through the agenda the American people voted for in 2012."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

OFA officials said last week the email setting the six-figure price for the presidential “clutch” -- or handshake -- with the president did not represent the group’s policy and was the main reason Maltzman had been fired.

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