* Seeking $1 million donations from business
* Contrasts with rhetoric on money in politics
* Government contractors and campaign vendors pony up
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Jan 10 President Barack Obama, who
has tried to limit the influence of money in politics, is
relying on federal contractors and businesses that profited from
his campaign to pay as much as $1 million for his inauguration
party later this month.
The fundraising strategy marks a shift from Obama's 2009
inauguration, when he banned corporate money and limited
individual contributions to showcase his commitment to
transparency and clean government.
This time around, organizers are soliciting bigger checks to
pay for a party that will lack the historic aura of 2009, when
Obama became the nation's first black president.
Donors include prominent government contractors such as AT&T
and Microsoft and a business that sells inauguration
merchandise. Wealthy individuals who funded attacks on his
Republican rival, Mitt Romney, also appear to be contributors.
Inauguration organizers say the loosened restrictions will
make it easier to cover the event's costs after the most
expensive election in U.S. history. Organizers are reluctant to
rely on individual donors who may feel tapped out after
contributing a record $715 million to Obama's re-election.
"We just came off of a very expensive election. We just want
to make sure we are meeting the goals we need to in order to put
on these civic events," said an official with the Presidential
Inaugural Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Government watchdogs say the fundraising effort highlights
the gulf between Obama's rhetoric and his actions in trying to
limit the influence of big donors in Washington.
"We have gotten used to being disappointed by him when it
comes to money in politics," said Campaign Legal Center policy
director Meredith McGehee.
UNEASY RELATIONSHIP WITH BIG MONEY
Since emerging on the national stage in 2004, Obama has
struggled to reconcile his desire to rein in political spending
with the need to win elections and court allies.
He has called for a constitutional amendment to overturn a
2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and other
groups to spend unlimited funds to influence elections.
Obama initially criticized the "Super PACs," or political
action committees, that were set up to take advantage of the
court's decision. But he reversed course after it became clear
that Republican candidates were benefiting from the new groups
and possibly putting Obama's Democrats at a fundraising
Organizers of the Democratic National Convention in
Charlotte, North Carolina, in early September initially banned
corporate contributions for that event, but eased that
restriction when fundraising lagged.
When Obama took office in 2009, inauguration organizers
banned corporate contributions and limited individual
contributions to $50,000.
This time, organizers say they are reluctant to ask
tapped-out campaign contributors to pay for a party that most of
them won't attend.
The inaugural committee is asking businesses to contribute
up to $1 million - more than the $250,000 limit that Republican
President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, put in place for
his second inauguration in 2005.
Organizers won't reveal the projected cost for Obama's event
this year but it is likely to be less than the $53 million bill
from 2009, which drew nearly 2 million people to Washington for
a star-studded concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a parade and 10
official balls, along with countless private parties.
The 2013 event will have no concert and only two official
balls. Top-dollar donors, however, still will have plenty of
opportunities for celebration.
Individuals who give $250,000 or businesses that donate $1
million will get tickets to an intimate reception several days
before the Jan. 21 swearing-in ceremony and a VIP "candle light
celebration" on the evening before, along with prime seats for
The Inaugural Committee has revealed the names of more than
400 donors. But unlike 2009, the group will not disclose the
contribution amounts until after the inauguration, as required
by federal law.
"It's a big step back in terms of transparency," said Kathy
Kiely, managing director at the Sunlight Foundation, which
promotes openness in government.
Among those listed are telecommunications giant AT&T and
software maker Microsoft Corp, both of which have a heavy
presence in Washington.
AT&T collected $747 million in federal contracts in the 2011
fiscal year, according to figures compiled by the Center for
Effective Government, while Microsoft billed $160 million for
government work. Both companies contributed more than $1 million
to the Democratic and Republican conventions last year.
AT&T and Microsoft declined to comment.
Rhode Island-based Financial Innovations, another donor,
sold T-shirts and other official merchandise for Obama's
re-election campaign and is now selling inauguration-related
souvenirs. The company did not return a call seeking comment.
St. Louis-based health insurer Centene Corp also is listed
as a donor.
The company's stock price rose nearly 10 percent after the
election, as investors bet that the health insurer would benefit
from Obama's healthcare overhaul. The company did not respond to
a request for comment.
Biotech firm Genentech said it is "proud to provide support
for the presidential inauguration," but declined to say how much
it had donated.
Inauguration donors appear to include individuals who
contributed heavily to Obama's re-election effort, though it is
difficult to know for sure given the few details released by the
California biotech executive Paul Zygielbaum appears to have
donated roughly $270,000 to Democrats during the past two years,
and Marsha Laufer is married to a hedge-fund executive who
donated $1.5 million to Priorities USA Action, a Super PAC
allied with Obama.
Neither responded to a request for comment.
Several individual donors appear to be employees at Bully
Pulpit Interactive, a company that handled digital advertising
for the 2009 inaugural and Obama's re-election. They did not
respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and