Prospective donor says pitch from Buttigieg bundler implied “pay-for-play”

The donor questioned how Buttigieg would deal with corporate lobbyists "if the implication is pay-for-play"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 23, 2019 4:30PM (EST)

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg  (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

A top fundraiser for Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign offered a wealthy prospective donor a chance to “get on the campaign’s radar” in exchange for a contribution.

An email reviewed by Axios shows that H.K. Park, a former Pentagon official who worked with Buttigieg at the defense consulting firm The Cohen Group, sent an “unusually blunt” pitch to a wealthy prospective donor. Park is listed on the Buttigieg campaign’s website as a top bundler who has raised more than $25,000 for the campaign.

"If you want to get on the campaign's radar now before he is flooded with donations after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, you can use the link below for donations," the email said, according to Axios.

Brendan Fischer of the campaign finance watchdog the Campaign Legal Center told Axios that the email is an “example of a campaign offering potential donors an opportunity to buy influence."

"It's rare that the public has an opportunity to see it in writing, but this is not the only campaign that's offering big donors the opportunity to get on the radar of the candidate in exchange for large contributions,” he said.

Buttigieg spokesman Sean Savett told Axios that the campaign did not “authorize the language” in the email and was not aware of it.

“It is ridiculous to interpret it as anything more than asking potential supporters who may be interested in Pete to join our campaign before caucusing and voting begins,” he said. "We are proud to have more than 700,000 donors who have already donated to our campaign, and the only promise any donor will ever get from Pete is that he will use their donations to defeat Donald Trump."

But even the prospective donor was “disturbed” by the email, according to Axios reporters, who did not disclose the donor’s name.

"It's very telling and concerning that one of the campaign's major bundlers would talk like that," the donor said. "What would this suggest about the way he's going to interact with Silicon Valley if the implication is pay-for-play? If that's the way he's operating, it's in the public interest for people to know what's being said."

Buttigieg has argued that raising money from wealthy donors will not corrupt his campaign but the donor told Axios that the email suggests “he’s running on an image that may not be his reality.”

The report comes just days after Buttigieg came under fire at last week’s Democratic debate for raising money from wealthy donors, including a ritzy “wine cave” fundraiser in California, while rivals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have rejected private fundraisers with wealthy donors.

“I do not sell access to my time,” Warren said at the debate. “I don’t do call time with millionaires and billionaires. I don’t meet behind closed doors with big-dollar donors … I’ve said to anyone who wants to donate to me, 'If you want to donate to me, that’s fine. But don’t come around later expecting to be named ambassador.' Because that’s what goes on at these high-dollar fundraisers."

Buttigieg noted that Warren swore off big-dollar fundraisers only after transferring millions of dollars she raised for her most recent Senate campaign in Massachusetts to her presidential campaign. The mayor argued that large donations would not “pollute" his campaign.

“We need support from everybody who is committed to helping us defeat Donald Trump,” Buttigieg said.

The pressure from Warren prompted Buttigieg to release the names of campaign fundraisers and open his fundraising events to the media. Politico has reported, however, that the campaign omitted more than 20 major fundraisers from its list. Buttigieg campaign aides told Politico that the fundraisers had been erroneously deleted when a list of bundlers was updated.

Buttigieg has raised more than half of his $50 million in donations from large-dollar contributions (those greater than $200), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's nearly twice the amount of large-dollar donations collected by Warren and Sanders. Many of Buttigieg’s biggest contributors work at Silicon Valley giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, according to the data.

Savett stressed to Salon that 98 percent of contributions to the campaign have been under $200. This would mean that more than half of the money to the campaign came from the just 2 percent of contributions. Savett noted that the average contribution in the last quarter was $32.

Savett told Salon that Buttigieg is not willing to put himself at a fundraising disadvantage as he aims to take on President Donald Trump and his massive fundraising operation.

"Pete believes we can't go into the fight of our lives with one hand tied behind our back," he said.

Buttigieg spoke differently about the effect of large donations from industries like Wall Street banks during his 2010 campaign for Indiana state treasurer. He said then he wouldn't accept any such donations because it could create the appearance of “pay-to-play.”

He complained at the time that Wall Street firms and other corporate interests had pumped “large sums of money” into the race in an effort to defeat his reform agenda. “I think it creates a conflict of interest” to accept such donations, he said at the time, “It creates an appearance, at the very least, that can smell like pay-to-play.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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