WASHINGTON — There are no Secret Service agents posted next to the barista and no presidential seal on the ceiling, but the Caribou Coffee across the street from the White House has become a favorite meeting spot to conduct Obama administration business.
Here at the Caribou on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a few other nearby coffee shops, White House officials have met hundreds of times over the last 18 months with prominent K Street lobbyists — members of the same industry that President Obama has derided for what he calls its “outsized influence” in the capital.
On the agenda over espressos and lattes, according to more than a dozen lobbyists and political operatives who have taken part in the sessions, have been front-burner issues like Wall Street regulation, health care rules, federal stimulus money, energy policy and climate control — and their impact on the lobbyists’ corporate clients.
But because the discussions are not taking place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they are not subject to disclosure on the visitors’ log that the White House releases as part of its pledge to be the “most transparent presidential administration in history.”
The off-site meetings, lobbyists say, reveal a disconnect between the Obama administration’s public rhetoric — with Mr. Obama himself frequently thrashing big industries’ “battalions” of lobbyists as enemies of reform — and the administration’s continuing, private dealings with them.
Rich Gold, a prominent Democratic lobbyist who has taken part in a number of meetings at Caribou Coffee, said that White House staff members “want to follow the president’s guidance of reducing the influence of special interests, and yet they have to do their job and have the best information available to them to make decisions.”
Mr. Gold added that the administration’s policy of posting all White House visits, combined with pressure to not be seen as meeting too frequently with lobbyists, leave staff members “betwixt and between.”
White House officials said there was nothing improper about the off-site meetings.
“The Obama administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase the openness and transparency of the White House,” said Dan Pfeiffer, director of communications. “We expect that all White House employees adhere to their obligations under our very stringent ethics rules regardless of who they are meeting with or where they meet.”
Attempts to put distance between the White House and lobbyists are not limited to meetings. Some lobbyists say that they routinely get e-mail messages from White House staff members’ personal accounts rather than from their official White House accounts, which can become subject to public review. Administration officials said there were some permissible exceptions to a federal law requiring staff members to use their official accounts and retain the correspondence.
And while Mr. Obama has imposed restrictions on hiring lobbyists for government posts, the administration has used waivers and recusals more than two dozen times to appoint lobbyists to political positions. Two lobbyists also cited instances in which the White House had suggested that a job candidate be “deregistered” as a lobbyist in Senate records to avoid violating the administration’s hiring restrictions.
A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that in “a small number of cases,” people might have been “wrongly” registered as lobbyists, based on federal standards. The official said that while the White House might have discussed such instances of possible “over-registration,” he was “quite confident that no lobbying shop has been instructed to deregister anyone.”
Many lobbyists still get in the front door at the White House — nearly 1,000 times, according to a New York Times examination of public White House visitors’ logs and lobbying registration records.
Those logs, though, present an incomplete picture. For instance, many of the entries do not reflect who actually took part in a meeting. The “visitee” often shows up not as the White House official who was the host, but as the administrative assistant who arranged the meeting.
David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, based in Washington, said the current “cold war” relationship between the White House and K Street lobbyists was one of mutual necessity, with the White House relying on lobbyists’ expertise and connections to help shape federal policies.
“You can’t close the door all the way because you still need to have these communications,” Mr. Wenhold said. “It makes a great sound bite for the White House to demonize us lobbyists, but at the end of the day, they’re still going to call us.”
Lobbyists say some White House officials will agree to an initial meeting with a lobbyist and his client at the White House, but then plan follow-up sessions at a site not subject to the visitors’ log.
One lobbyist recounted meeting with White House officials on a side lawn outside the building to introduce them to the chief executive of a major foreign corporation.
“I’ll call and say, ‘I want to talk to you about X,’ and they’ll say, ‘Sure, let’s talk at Starbucks,’ ” said another lobbyist who counted six or seven off-site meetings with White House officials on financial issues.
Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, has shown up several times at a closed gathering of liberal political activists and lobbyists that is held weekly at the Capital Hilton. Other Obama aides — like Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff, and Norm Eisen, the special assistant for ethics — and senior aides in the Office of Management and Budget, the energy czar’s office and elsewhere have also taken part in off-campus meetings, lobbyists said.
Employees at Caribou Coffee — which many lobbyists said appeared to be the favorite spot for off-site meetings, in part because of its proximity to the White House — welcome the increased traffic.
“They’re here all the time — all day,” Andre Williams, a manager at Caribou Coffee, said of his White House customers. (He can spot White House officials by the security badges around their necks, or the Secret Service agents lurking nearby.)
“A lot of them like lattes — that or a ‘depth charge,’ a coffee with a shot of espresso,” Mr. Williams said. “The caffeine rush — they need it.”
Some administration officials and lobbyists say that meeting away from the White House allows officials to get some air without making visitors go through the cumbersome White House security process. Others, however, acknowledge that one motivation is the desire to avoid lobbyists’ names showing up too often on the White House logs.
A senior White House official said, “We don’t believe there’s anything untoward about these meetings, and we don’t think that represents any special access for lobbyists.”
The official added that “folks are allowed to get a cup of coffee, and we’re not going to bar patronage at any of the area’s fine coffeehouses.”
Source: New York Times
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