Winfrey, Clooney among first White House guests

Published October 31, 2009 7:01AM (EDT)

Celebrities George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey and prominent lobbyists, corporate executives and Democratic fundraisers were among the first to score visits with President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle or top aides at the White House, newly released records show.

The White House late Friday afternoon posted a list of roughly 480 records in response to questions about whether specific people visited the president's home. It plans to start disclosing comprehensive visitor lists in coming months.

The records are a step toward making good on Obama's promise of transparency. But they also show that despite a campaign pledge to reduce special-interest influence on policymaking, lobbyists are getting face time with him and his aides.

The visits included in the records released Friday include roughly eight dozen with Obama.

Among the guests:

-- Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The wealthy philanthropist had a March 25 meeting with Obama in the Oval Office. The subject isn't disclosed. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives about $200 million a year in elementary and secondary education grants and is pressing for some of the same changes that Obama wants, such as paying teachers based on student test scores.

-- Labor leader and Obama supporter Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. Twenty-two Stern visits to the White House are reflected in the records, including at least seven with Obama. Most of the visits with Obama were for group events; the subjects of most of his visits to other people weren't disclosed.

-- Ed Yingling, the chief executive of the American Bankers Association and a registered lobbyist. Yingling attended at least four meetings with Obama. One meeting included several bank CEOs; the subjects of the others included credit cards and housing.

-- Camden Fine, chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America and a Washington lobbyist for the group. Fine also had at least four Obama meetings, including the ones with bank CEOs and on housing.

-- Clooney, a U.N. messenger of peace, met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Feb. 23 to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. Clooney has said he asked Obama to appoint a full-time regional envoy to report directly to the White House.

-- Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist, lobbyist and former House staffer. Elmendorf, whose lobbying clients include Ford Motor Co., UnitedHealth Group and Verizon, attended a June 29 Obama reception and had at least four meetings with others at the White House complex.

Lobbyists and Democratic fundraisers Anthony and Heather Podesta made several visits to Obama aides. Anthony Podesta, whose brother, John, headed Obama's transition team, visited the White House complex at least five times, all on behalf of lobbying clients.

"The small number of meetings that I've been to at the White House -- I go to the White House every other month on the average -- have been on issues that the White House cared about," Anthony Podesta said in a phone interview Friday night when asked whether his fundraising and his brother's ties to Obama helped land the meetings.

"I understand that you could interpret it otherwise," he added.

Podesta said the first meeting, one in February at the Old Executive Office Building, was to present a report by Securing America's Future Energy, a group lobbying the government to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Podesta said that neither SAFE nor his lobbying clients at a May meeting asked for any action. The May meeting at the White House with Obama aide Pete Rouse and Podesta clients Cessna and NetJets focused on a severe drop in small-plane sales, he said.

Podesta said he didn't consider the meeting lobbying.

"We weren't saying, 'Please give us money' or 'Please set up a special program for us,'" Podesta said. "We were just letting the administration know there was this difficult situation in the small-jet manufacturing market."

Podesta does consider two other sit-downs -- both for client Sallie Mae with Obama education adviser Robert Gordon -- lobbying. Podesta said he and Sallie Mae urged the administration to let multiple firms handle student loan originations rather than one company, Accenture. The administration didn't, so it was failed lobbying, he said.

Podesta said he didn't recall having the other meeting listed, one with Obama economic adviser Jason Furman at the White House in March. Podesta's wife, Heather, made at least three visits, all to Obama aides at the Old Executive Office Building in the White House complex, the records show. The subjects weren't disclosed.

Among other visitors, talk show host Winfrey, who campaigned for Obama, interviewed the first lady Feb. 17 and was on the guest list for an inaugural reception.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer met with Obama economic adviser Larry Summers and technology adviser John Holdren in June and had a West Wing tour in April, the records show.

The list also includes some names that would draw attention at first glance: Michael Jordan, Michael Moore, William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. The White House was quick to note that the visitors were not actually the basketball star, the documentary filmmaker or the controversial activist and preacher -- just people who share their names.


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By Sharon Theimer

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