A veteran Goldman Sachs & Co. executive and major fundraiser for President Barack Obama has been nominated as the next ambassador to Canada — the latest in a parade of big-dollar campaign backers slated to represent U.S. interests abroad.
Chicago-based Bruce Heyman raised more than $750,000 for Obama’s committees since 2007, along with his wife, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of records.
Heyman’s nomination is a sort of milestone for the White House: During his second term, Obama has now tapped 20 campaign bundlers for ambassadorships. Together, these moneymen and women raised at least $13.8 million — and likely much more — for Obama’s political committees since 2007, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s research.
Two men — attorney Kirk W.B. Wagar and Matthew Barzun, who served as Obama’s 2012 national finance chairman — each bundled at least $1.2 million for Obama’s committees over the years, records show, placing them atop the list of most prolific embassy-bound fundraisers.
Wagar is the U.S. ambassador to Singapore, while Barzun now represents the country in the United Kingdom.
On Sept. 10 alone, Obama selected three bundlers for diplomatic positions: hotel magnate George Tsunis for Norway, private equity executive Anthony Luzzatto Gardner for the European Union and attorney Michael A. Lawson for the United Nations' Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Tsunis and Gardner each raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 re-election efforts, while Lawson and his wife together raised at least $950,000 for Obama since his 2008 campaign.
When he was running for president in 2008, Obama pledged to be a different kind of politician and stressed his “commitment to changing the way business is done in Washington.” The custom of elevating top donors and fundraisers to plum diplomatic posts — a practice embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents for generations — wasn’t touched, however.
This has prompted criticism from many career diplomats and good-government groups, even as Obama’s overall rate of appointing non-career ambassadors has remained in-line with those of previous administrations — about one in three, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the labor union and trade association for career diplomats. So far in Obama's second term, it's about one in two.
“Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto ‘three-year rental’ of ambassadorships,” extolls the American Foreign Service Association website. “The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America’s important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed.”
The group maintains that it is “difficult” for the country “to attract, train, retain and deploy a professional cadre” of envoys “if the majority of key senior diplomatic positions at home and abroad are reserved for political appointees.”
Added Craig Holman, a lobbyist for consumer group Public Citizen: “Diplomatic missions should never be treated as plum posts to be handed out as a reward to campaign fundraisers.”
Research by the Center for Public Integrity shows that most of Obama’s political money bundlers are slated for diplomatic posts in Western Europe, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.
During both his first and second term, Obama has also elevated former campaign and White House officials for several high-profile posts.
For instance, Rufus Gifford, his campaign’s 2012 finance director, was nominated to be the next ambassador to Denmark. Former Office of Management and Budget head John Berry has been nominated to be the next ambassador to Australia. And Norm Eisen, Obama’s former ethics czar, has been serving as the ambassador to the Czech Republicsince December 2011.
White House spokesmen Eric Schultz said Obama has nominated “talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds” to represent the United States abroad.
“Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one,” Schultz said.
President Richard Nixon made an even more forceful argument during his 1975 grand jury testimony, which was unsealed in 2011 after a lawsuit filed by Public Citizen on behalf of several historians.
“Some posts require wealthy people,” Nixon said. “Big contributors in many instances make better ambassadors, particularly where American economic interests are involved.”
At the time, Nixon derided career diplomats as “intellectual and emotional eunuchs and not worthy of representing the United States.”
Nixon himself had said donors needed to pony up at least $250,000 — or about $1.4 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation — to be considered for an ambassadorship ahead of his 1972 re-election, according to White House tapes released in 1997.
Herbert W. Kalmbach — Nixon’s personal lawyer and a major Nixon campaign fundraiser — ultimately pleaded guilty and served jail time for selling the U.S. ambassadorship to the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
The actual amounts of money raised by Obama’s bundlers — so called because they are credited for raising funds from family, friends and business associates and delivering the money in “bundles” — may be even larger than calculated by the Center for Public Integrity.
Federal law only requires disclosure of bundling by registered lobbyists, and the Obama campaign only disclosed bundling amounts using broad ranges — the largest of which were simply “more than $500,000.”
Bundlers for Obama’s 2009 inauguration were voluntarily identified, but no such disclosure occurred in 2013.
Campaign documents leaked to the New York Times show even greater sums funneled to the campaign than the general disclosures suggest.
Barzun, for instance, was credited with raising more than $2.3 million, and Wagar was listed as raising at least $1.4 million since 2007. These documents also indicate that Heyman, Obama’s new nominee to represent the United States in Canada, raised more than $1.7 million, in conjunction with his wife.
Heyman, Barzun and Wagar could not be reached for comment.
Barzun served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden during Obama’s first term before leaving that post to join Obama’s re-election campaign. When he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, he pledged to “work every day to nurture and deepen” to country’s “special relationship” with the United Kingdom.
Wagar likewise promised to “work tirelessly” on the nation’s behalf, including cooperating with Singapore to “successfully complete” negotiations on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“I look forward to working with Singapore,” Wagar said, “on coming up with modern and mutually beneficial solutions to the problems of the present and of the future.”
The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.