Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is accusing President Barack Obama of committing “an apparent crime” when he recorded a video in the White House as part of a raffle to raise money for his reelection campaign.
“The facts of this case strongly suggest a crime was committed,” Priebus said in a letter Monday to Attorney General Eric Holder. “I call on the Department of Justice to investigate this possible criminal act by the President of the United States.”
Priebus’s letter argues that Obama appears to have violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that restricts political activity and fundraising by federal employees. One part of that law makes it illegal for officials, including the president, to “solicit … a donation of money or other thing of value in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties.”
However, some good-government groups and campaign finance experts have shrugged off the Obama video and the related raffle, which was announced last month and sought a campaign donation of at least $5. In the fine print, it said no donation was required. And one expert said Monday that Priebus’s letter was off the mark.
“This letter is an embarrassment to the Republican Party, of which I count myself a part,” said Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in President George W. Bush’s White House.
“The small donors get nothing in return for their donation except a chance to support a candidate they believe in – until this raffle. Now they get a raffle ticket entitling them [to] a very small chance of getting the type of meeting that a big donor has for the asking,” Painter said. “To call this a crime yet ignore the larger problem is absurd. Writing this kind of letter – after standing in the way of campaign finance reform – is laughable.”
A 1979 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel held that a luncheon President Jimmy Carter hosted in 1978 with Democratic Party donors could not have violated the Hatch Act because it took place in the family dining room of the White House.
The Obama White House has cited the Carter-era opinion to argue that rooms in the White House residence – such as the Map Room, where the raffle video was made – can legally be used for political activities and even fundraising.
“I do not know whether there has been a technical violation or not because the video was made in the Map Room,” Painter said. “I do not recall the Map Room being a place where a lot of official business was done at the White House, and I am sure a lot of official business does get done in the residence. So the distinction is purely technical.”
Obama aides also say that because the president does not explicitly ask for money in the video but simply encourages people to take part in a “contest the campaign is running,” his pitch does not amount to a request for money.
“This was wholly appropriate and routinely done in past administrations, as evidenced by an abundance of examples spanning the past three decades,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said when asked about Priebus’s letter. “In fact, experts and lawyers have said publicly that all of what this administration is doing is above board.”
The Democratic National Committee slammed Priebus’s letter, painting the RNC chief as a hypocrite.
“This is a disgraceful, desperate and politically-motivated attempt at getting headlines by a Republican Party awash in special interest cash which is fighting to preserve tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires at the expense of seniors,” DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said. “This is also an effort to distract from the fact that the President has run the most open and transparent White House and campaign ever while the GOP and its candidates could not survive without being in the pockets of big oil, insurance companies and other special interests.”
Schultz noted that in 1987 President Ronald Reagan held an event in the East Room thanking donors for giving Republicans the “financial strength to recapture” the White House and reportedly called on them to continue giving. Reagan also called in to fundraising receptions from the White House. Internet fundraising materials for the Republican National Committee in 2008 linked to images of Bush in the Oval Office.
Absent from the Obama White House’s list of historical examples is Vice President Al Gore’s acknowledgment in 1997 that he solicited campaign contributions in telephone calls from his office. He said “no controlling legal authority” prohibited the practice, but he also said he would not do it again. No legal action was taken against Gore.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment on Priebus’s letter, which followed letters that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent to the White House and Democratic National Committee in recent days seeking records about the same video. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman was somewhat more circumspect about the video and about the prospect that Obama broke the law. Issa quoted press reports saying the video “may be illegal if it was filmed inside the White House.”
Priebus indicated in his letter that he feels a duty to police Obama’s conduct, both that which may be illegal and that which Priebus views as ill-advised.
“As Chairman of the Republican National Committee, I have the responsibility to hold the President accountable for his reckless spending, for the unsustainable growth of government and the crushing debt he is leaving for future generations of Americans, and now, sadly, for his apparent criminal behavior,” the RNC chairman wrote. “I never expected I would be in this regrettable position, but the President’s conduct and the White House staff’s stonewalling leave me no choice.”