White House Zipping Certain Meetings Offsite To Shield Them: Bypassing Logs, Requiring Confidentiality Agreements Cited
February 24th, 2011
Caught between their boss’s anti-lobbyist rhetoric and the reality of governing, President Barack Obama’s aides often steer meetings with lobbyists to a complex just off the White House grounds – and several of the lobbyists involved say they believe the choice of venue is no accident.
It allows the Obama administration to keep these lobbyist meetings shielded from public view — and out of Secret Service logs collected on visitors to the White House and later released to the public.
“They’re doing it on the side. It’s better than nothing,” said immigration reform lobbyist Tamar Jacoby, who has attended meetings at the nearby Jackson Place complex and believes the undisclosed gatherings are better than none.
The White House scoffs at the notion of an ulterior motive for scheduling meetings in what are, after all, meeting rooms. But at least four lobbyists who’ve been to the conference rooms just off Lafayette Square tell POLITICO they had the distinct impression they were being shunted off to Jackson Place – and off the books – so their visits wouldn’t later be made public.
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Obama’s administration has touted its release of White House visitors logs as a breakthrough in transparency, as the first White House team ever to reveal the comings and goings around the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building.
The Jackson Place townhouses are a different story.
There are no records of meetings at the row houses just off Lafayette Square that house the White House Conference Center and the Council on Environmental Quality, home to two of the busiest meeting spaces. The White House can’t say who attended meetings there, or how often. The Secret Service doesn’t log in visitors or require a background check the way it does at the main gates of the White House.
The White House says the additional meeting space is used when the White House is filled or when there’s no time to clear participants through the security screening. And to be sure, a few lobbyists contacted by POLITICO said they didn’t see any hidden motive for the White House staff’s decision to hold a meeting there.
“The White House conference facilities are just that: facilities for large meetings. They are also an option when rooms inside the complex don’t have the capacity for a given meeting or are booked,” said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin.
But that’s not how it feels to some of the lobbyists who’ve been there.
They say the White House is generally happy to meet with them and their clients once or twice, but get leery when an issue requires multiple visits and begin pushing for phone calls or meetings outside the White House’s gates.
“Without question, I think that there’s a lot of concern about being seen meeting with the same lobbyists or particular lobbyists over and over again,” said one business lobbyist, who has been to Jackson Place meetings.
It’s not only Jackson Place. Another favorite off-campus meeting spot is a nearby Caribou Coffee, which, according to the New York Times, has hosted hundreds of meetings among lobbyists and White House staffers since Obama took office.
And administration officials recently asked some lobbyists and others who met with them to sign confidentiality agreements barring them from disclosing what was discussed at meetings with administration officials, in that case a rental policy working group.