Republicans to push Obama on "hidden" lobbyist meetings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans will examine claims that President Barack Obama’s aides held hundreds of meetings with lobbyists away from the White House to keep them out of Secret Service visitor logs.

Tourists walk past the White House in Washington in this file photo. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Allegations that White House staffers scheduled time with lobbyists in coffee shops and other off-site venues to avoid public disclosure requirements will be the focus of an upcoming Capitol Hill hearing, a senior Republican told Reuters.

Cliff Stearns, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight subcommittee, said the practice of meeting lobbyists at external locations like a Caribou coffee shop one block from the White House would be reviewed at a hearing on transparency.

“These meetings appear to be in direct contrast to President Obama’s pledge to have the most transparent administration in history,” Stearns said.

Meeting lobbyists for coffee or lunch has long been a common practice in Washington -- there were many such meetings attended by staff in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

As a presidential candidate, Obama railed against the influence of lobbyists in Washington and promised to be more open about the meetings that take place.

But David Wenhold, who recently stepped down as president of the American League of Lobbyists, told Reuters that Obama’s aides have held more off-site encounters, hidden from the official record, than previous administrations.

Such meetings occurred particularly frequently during negotiations over the $787 billion stimulus package, which was passed by Congress shortly after Obama took office, he said.

“The president obviously doesn’t like lobbyists, but he still needs information from us -- so it’s obviously easier for them not to have these meetings in the logs,” Wenhold said. “They are saying one thing, and doing another thing.”

White House officials said there are many lobbyist meetings documented in the visitor logs that are publicly available, and stressed there are no rules against meeting lobbyists outside of the White House.

“This administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase the openness and transparency of the White House,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.

“We expect all White House employees to adhere to their obligations under our very stringent ethics rules regardless of who they are meeting with and where they meet.”

Claims that White House staff deliberately tried to hide “hundreds” of meetings with lobbyists from visitor logs first emerged in The New York Times last year. That was one media report cited during a transparency hearing Stearns held on May 3 that prompted the follow-up attention.

Randy Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who has attended meetings both in the White House and off-site, said he saw nothing wrong in the practice.

“I have been doing this stuff a long time, and I don’t see anything unusual,” Johnson said.

“The only possible difference here is that this administration was taking a stance early on that every meeting would be open. But sometimes meetings are held at the White House, sometimes not -- it just depends on whether a room is available.”

The White House agreed in 2009 to release visitor records after a Washington watchdog sued for their release.

Editing by Laura MacInnis