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RNC chief: WH aide huddles may be illegal

Aug. 2, 2012 at 4:00 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- A top U.S. Republican called for a "full-scale" probe to see if the Obama administration broke the law by holding back-channel meetings outside the White House.

"We need to have a full-scale investigation so that we can in fact determine whether or not, under the facts and circumstances, that we have a crime," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters in a conference call the RNC arranged after a GOP-controlled House subcommittee report accused the White House of breaking its own transparency rules.

House Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who released the report Tuesday with other Republicans on his panel, said in the call the report did not allege illegal activity, but did indicate the administration fell far short of its transparency promises.

He said he wouldn't say more about possible illegality until the White House turned over more documents. He did not say what documents he wanted.

Priebus said the Obama administration may have violated the 1978 Presidential Records Act mandating the preservation of all presidential records.

The George W. Bush administration was confronted with similar questions at one point.

When a reporter pressed Priebus about whether he saw similarities between his current allegations and those dating from the Bush years, Priebus said, "Look, I'm not here to re-litigate any of those old fights that took place."

The subcommittee report cites e-mails from Obama administration aides sent from private addresses and meetings scheduled away from the building to avoid official record. It also juxtaposes news reports about "off campus" meetings with White House statements about transparency.

One report by The New York Times Jan. 24, 2010, said, "White House officials have met hundreds of times over the last 18 months with prominent K Street lobbyists" at Caribou Coffee Co. and other coffee shops near the White House to discuss "front-burner issues like Wall Street regulation, healthcare rules, federal stimulus money, energy policy and climate control -- and their impact on the lobbyists' corporate clients."

Because the talks did not take place at the White House, they were not subject to disclosure on the visitors' log the White House releases as part of its pledge to be the "most transparent presidential administration in history," the Times report said.

"They've been using the Caribou Coffee shop across the street from the White House as an executive branch annex to hold secretive meetings with lobbyists and political cronies," Priebus said.

"These newly covered e-mails showed one White House staffer explicitly asking an industry insider to meet him at Caribou so that he wouldn't have to appear on the White House visitor logs," he said.

The report cited an e-mail about a proposed meeting between presidential science adviser Jeffrey Smith and a technology company executive.

Smith suggested meeting at Caribou Coffee because "getting you through the new WH security rules these days almost takes an act of Congress" and meeting at the White House would mean "you'd appear on an official WH Visitor List which is maybe not [what] you want at this stage," the e-mail cited in the panel report said.

A separate communication to pharmaceutical lobbyist Jeffrey Forbes from Jim Messina -- who was White House deputy chief of staff for operations at the time and now manages Obama's re-election campaign -- came from his personal e-mail account, the report said.

In the e-mail, sent during negotiations, days before Congress approved the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Messina made a promise about healthcare reform language despite resistance of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"I will roll [P]elosi to get the 4 billion," his e-mail said. "As you may have heard I am literally rolling over the house. But there just isn't 8-10 billion."

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Messina "had a longstanding personal e-mail account in which he got traffic.

"In an effort to comply with all the regulations pertaining to e-mails, he would forward e-mails to his White House account or copy his White House account so that those e-mails would be part of presidential record -- and that is per guidance provided by counsel," Carney said aboard Air Force One en route to Mansfield, Ohio.

As for meeting off campus to avoid people being in the White House log book, Carney told reporters: "I have had meetings with you guys off campus all the time, and it's true that I don't want people to know that I meet with you because I try to keep better company.

"I'm joking," he quickly added.

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