Reporting from Washington—Obama administration Cabinet members and senior aides are fanning out across the country in an aggressive fundraising drive, taking advantage of porous campaign finance laws that allow them to appear as marquee speakers and raise substantial money for the president's reelection effort.
The Obama campaign's "Speaker Series" program turns Cabinet secretaries and top White House advisors into fundraising surrogates. For $5,000, a donor can get a kind of season pass to see officials when they come to town — a bargain compared with the $35,800 typically charged for dinner with President Obama.
None of this is illegal, although the appearances must be carefully choreographed to avoid running afoul of the federal Hatch Act, which regulates political activity by government employees but allows ample wiggle room.
Invitations can't mention the official's title. Steven Chu, for example, can appear as "the Honorable Steven Chu," but not as secretary of Energy. Officials must attend functions in their "personal capacity." Any biographical material included in a program can't place excessive emphasis on government titles.
And the speakers are not supposed to discuss their agency's specific work, putting them in awkward situations because those are precisely the topics many donors pay to hear about.
"This is a gray area," said Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act unit of the Office of Special Counsel, the agency that enforces the law. "These issues arise with every White House in every election cycle.
"Let's say we were asked, 'What can an administration official say at a fundraiser?' My advice would be that if the official gets questions about specific agency initiatives, it would be best if she reminded the audience that she's there in her personal capacity."
Obama has raised nearly $90 million thus far, more than all of the GOP presidential candidates combined.
Spokespeople for the Cabinet secretaries say that they have been careful not to step over the line. Some people who have attended recent fundraisers described situations that came close to the limit.
When Jackson spoke at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco recently, for example, she fielded questions about the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline project that environmentalists oppose, according to a donor who attended the event. Jackson talked about the EPA's role in reviewing how the pipeline would affect the environment, the donor said.
Jackson also spoke about EPA regulations that Obama had proposed to limit ozone pollution, the attendee said. The president had scrapped those in September, angering environmentalists.
Duncan mentioned the Education Department's Race to the Top initiative and talked about the administration's education priorities, said one person who saw him speak.
Among the questions posed to Jarrett were one from a hospital executive about Obama's healthcare plan and another from a high-tech executive about U.S. trade policy, according to a person who was at that event.
Spokespeople for Jackson and Duncan said their remarks were permissible. "We are aware of the laws and the issues that govern how he should conduct himself in these events, and we will follow them," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Duncan. Jarrett's office declined to comment.
Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, called the speaker series "entirely appropriate under the rules, and consistent with past practices."
In recent years, presidents have grown more inventive in how they have used their incumbency to raise money. "It's one of the spoils that you have when you're the incumbent," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
President Clinton famously opened up the Lincoln Bedroom to campaign donors. An office in George W. Bush's White House devolved into a "political boiler room," where partisan briefings to staffers were held in violation of the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel ruled.
Obama took office pledging to do things differently. But groups that favor limits on campaign money say his vows now look empty.
"It was wrong to do under previous presidents, and we don't think it's the right thing to do now, either," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund. "This is the kind of thing that makes the public sick to their stomachs."
Obama is already outpacing his predecessor when it comes to raising money. He has been to at least 59 fundraising events this year, twice the number that President Bush had attended at a comparable point in his 2004 reelection campaign, according to research by Brendan Doherty, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The courts have been a factor. The Supreme Court ruled in January 2010 that corporations and unions could spend money directly on campaigns. That sparked the rise of "super PACs" — which are allowed to raise unlimited sums — and the GOP promptly launched an aggressive campaign for the midterm election. The ruling was a game-changer that will result in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on behalf of political campaigns next year.
Another reality is that the process of identifying Hatch Act violations, which can draw penalties ranging from a 30-day suspension without pay to removal from office, is slow.
When the Office of Special Counsel determined that Bush White House officials had violated the act, no one was punished. The report came earlier this year. All of the staff members involved were long since out of office.
Kim Geiger in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.