Barack Obama's inaugural committee has shrouded its fundraising activities in secrecy, a surprising reversal of the president's reporting standards four years ago when he vowed to usher in a new era of government openness and transparency.
Government watchdog groups are expressing dismay this week after the inaugural committee invited large corporations and wealthy individuals to make donations without limits. The committee posted a secured website to receive gifts in multiples of $1 million so firms may receive additional tickets to inaugural events.
There, corporations can click to donate multiples of $1 million, and high-rolling individuals multiples of $250,000, which entitles them to "Premium Partner Access" to inaugural festivities.
People or corporations who give these amounts or more receive: two tickets to a "Benefactors Reception;" four tickets to an inaugural ball; two tickets to a children's concert; two tickets to the "Co-Chair's Ball"; four tickets to a candlelight reception at the National Building Museum; and two reserved bleacher seats to the inaugural parade.
The committee, so far, refuses to say how much money it has collected.
"I think they are ashamed of what they are doing," said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman. "Now they are accepting corporate contributions and are allowing multimillion-dollar online credit card donations. This is an egregious backtrack from four years ago."
Obama was praised in 2009 after his inaugural committee set a $50,000 limit on personal donations and banned any gifts from corporations and special interest Political Action Committees. The committee began reporting complete information about all donations received starting in early December 2008.
Despite those self-imposed limits, donations for Obama's 2009 inauguration eventually totaled $54 million.
This month, the Presidential Inaugural Committee posted a list of more than 400 donors -- including corporate giants AT&T and Microsoft -- but refused requests from the news media for the dollar amounts given.
In the case of individuals, the committee also declined to provide full or even partial addresses, making it impossible to know for certain who has contributed.
"The Presidential Inaugural Committee is continuing its pledge of transparency for the American people and is taking extra steps to provide the public with ongoing updates about who is donating to the inaugural," said committee spokeswoman Aoife McCarthy. "We will also make public the final list of donors and the amounts they contributed 90 days after the presidential inauguration.”
That claim astonished government watchdogs.
"That's really insulting if they are going to call this transparency," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks dollars flowing to federal elected officials. "This is surprising and confounding. What has changed? What could possibly explain this turn of events?"
One of Obama's first acts as president in January 2009 was to issue a sweeping directive to all federal agencies that the Freedom of Information Act (often called FOIA) would be enforced.
"In the face of doubt, openness prevails," Obama said then. "All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government."
That promise stands in contrast to the president's actions this month as he raises millions of dollars for his last inaugural event, said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group trying to track donations going to the inauguration.
"President Obama once actually bragged about his transparency and promised to change how things are done in Washington," Kiely said. "The signal now seems to be that we're back to business as usual."