While Claiming Transparency, White House Skirts Transparency Questions

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After arriving in office, President Obama took a major step towards shining new sunlight on the comings and goings of lobbyists entering the White House grounds. As of January 28, 2011, there are now more than 1 million secret service visitor logs posted online by the White House, with an easily searchable and downloadable database. It took me about one minute to find out that actor George Clooney, who is also an anti-genocide activist, has been to the White House three times, once to see Vice President Biden and twice to see President Obama.

But as Politico pointed out this morning, the logs are not reliable records for all the homebase meetings between White House officials and lobbyists. Obama Administration officials have made a habit of arranging meetings at a conference center across the street, and at coffee shops nearby the White House, where the Secret Service makes no record of comings and goings.

Today, in the White House briefing, I asked Press Secretary Jay Carney several questions on the practice of meeting lobbyists off campus. (As previously noted, Carney worked for TIME until the end of  2008.) Among them: Was there any guidance given to White House officials on when it is appropriate to meet with lobbyists off campus? Would it be appropriate for a White House official to intentionally meet off campus so there was no record of the meeting?

Carney responded by saying, accurately, that the level of transparency by Obama was “unprecedented.” He said that the Politico story was “absurd” since it focused on meeting rooms across the street from the White House that were used to solve space issues. And he said he was not aware of anyone at the White House intentionally trying to “hide where they are meeting.” “The suggestion that we’re not being transparent is laughable given the unbelievable precedent this administration has set,” Carney said.

But in his discussion of White House transparency, Carney did not directly answer the question of whether White House officials get guidance on when it is appropriate to meet off campus with lobbyists. He also did not answer whether it would be appropriate for a White House official to intentionally arrange a meeting with a lobbyist off campus to avoid showing up in the records.

The campaign finance reform group Common Cause has called for the White House to release records of all contacts with registered lobbyists, wherever they occur. See the Common Cause statement here.

The transcript follows below:

Q    Given the President’s commitment to transparency, is there any guidance White House officials get about when it’s appropriate to meet off campus with a lobbyist and when a lobbyist meeting should be on campus?

MR. CARNEY:  This administration has taken extraordinary actions to be transparent.  I think this question stems from a story that, frankly, was absurd.  We release hundreds of thousands of records voluntarily, a policy instituted by this President because of his desire for transparency — something no administration had ever done before.  The decisions about where — and those records are available to every American citizen online to be reviewed, and all different types of people come to the White House complex for meetings on issues.  And our level of transparency and disclosure is unprecedented because the President believes deeply in it.

What I would say is that, as any of you who have walked around this complex know, been in the West Wing — not like the TV show; very small space, very few meeting rooms.  The Old Executive Office Building — the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a third of which has been under renovation since we’ve been here — very limited space.  Jackson Place is a White House conference center — so designated — and therefore when we have large meetings sometimes we use that space if there are no spaces here.

So that’s —

Q    But would you agree that there’s effectively a transparency loophole here, if the goal is to show when lobbyists, powerful interests, are meeting with White House officials, that right now it’s routine for White House officials to meet off campus with these people and there’s no daylight on that?

MR. CARNEY:  It is routine for the White House officials to meet with all types of people, including lobbyists, and frequently here.  The suggestion that we’re not being transparent is laughable given the unbelievable precedent this administration has set in its — closing the door, the revolving door, and releasing these records.  There are no — the WAVES system, which is the system that produces the records, operates in certain buildings and not others.  And for those decisions, how that operates and why, I refer you to the United States Secret Service.  But the principle here is the unprecedented level of transparency that we have provided because we believe deeply in it.

Q    Would it be inappropriate for a White House official to intentionally arrange a meeting off campus to not be caught by the WAVES records?

MR. CARNEY:  Look, we have meetings with all sorts of people.  We have them here.  Those records are available.

Q    But would it be appropriate if you choose to go off campus because you didn’t want it to show up in the files?

Q   [At this point other reporters in the room began asking follow ups.] It’s yes or no.

MR. CARNEY:  The guiding principle here is transparency, and we believe that — nobody is, that I’m aware of, is hiding where they’re meeting. The meetings that happen at Jackson Place, it’s a big meeting place and that’s where —

Q    If it’s so big, why not change the policy and release those names —

MR. CARNEY:  We do not control where the WAVES is.  And I’m not going to — in terms of —

Q    You could release them separately.  You could change the policy.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, Chip, look, I’m not aware what policies might be instituted in the future.  But what I think is fundamentally important to remind you of is that we release information that has never been released before.  I think you probably remember, you were covering the previous administration.  They went to court, to the Supreme Court, to prevent the disclosure of people who were meeting with the Vice President.  We voluntarily release the records that are available to us.  And we never said that there was a way to get every name in every meeting.  The principle is disclosure, and we have gone to extraordinary lengths to make that happen.

Q    Would you consider changing the policy to increase disclosure?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I don’t want to predict about future policies that may be put in place.  I just want to remind everybody about what we’ve done and why.