Watchdog groups are blasting the Obama administration for dodging records rules and cutting corners on its self-imposed disclosure requirements for White House visitors.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called for an investigation by a congressional oversight committee of potential violations of the Presidential Records Act and Federal Records Act. And the Sunlight Foundation on Friday set up shop outside a nearby coffeehouse to catch any administration staffers secretly meeting with K Streeters.
"It shouldn't matter whether or not a meeting between White House officials and lobbyists happens at the White House or at Caribou Coffee," wrote Sunlight's Nicole Aro in a blog post.
Despite its pledge to be transparent about special interest access, and its anti-lobbyist rules and rhetoric, the Obama administration is apparently more in touch with lobbyists than it would like people to know. The New York Times reported on Thursday that White House staffers use personal email accounts and nearby coffeeshops to avoid a paper trail and to keep lobbyists' names from appearing in the much-ballyhooed visitors log too frequently.
Also, two lobbyists told the Times that "the White House had suggested that a job candidate be 'deregistered' as a lobbyist in Senate records to avoid violating the administration's hiring restrictions."
Though 2009 was the most profitable year ever for the influence industry, more than a thousand lobbyists deregistered, a trend many attribute to Obama's harsh rhetoric and rules barring lobbyists from serving in the administration or on federal advisory boards.
"There's no doubt that many lobbyists have revisited their status in order to achieve a number of goals, including jobs in the administration, and to avoid the 'Scarlet L,'" said Mike Fulton, a lobbyist with Golin Harris and a board member with the American League of Lobbyists, a group that promotes best practices on K Street.
Indeed, two lobbyists heard Obama's rhetoric and decided it would be better to ditch the Scarlet L and start a new "non-lobbying entity" called K Street Research.
"This is what all the administration's anti-lobbyist rhetoric gets you -- less transparency," said CREW director Melanie Sloan in a statement. "Rather than being open and clear about who is influencing White House policy, the White House is trying to hide who it's really talking to. Even worse, the public is being suckered with lofty rhetoric about the evils of the same lobbyists White House officials are meeting with."
Republicans seized on the Times story as well: "Just because the latte-drinking liberals in the Obama White House prefer coffee houses to the traditional smoke-filled backrooms of Washington in order to cut their special interest deals, doesn't make it any less insulting to the American public," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Sunlight Foundation had some trouble tracking down any lobbyists when it staked out Caribou Coffee on Friday, noting in a video that "lobbyists look like everyone else." A similar problem occurred when the White House first released its visitor logs. "A lot of people visit the White House, up to 100,000 each month, with many of those folks coming to tour the buildings," wrote White House ethics lawyer Norm Eisen. "Given this large amount of data, the records we are publishing today include a few 'false positives' -- names that make you think of a well-known person, but are actually someone else."
Michael Jordan, William Ayers, Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, and R. Kelly did not actually visit the White House, Eisen wrote -- just their non-famous namesakes. But maybe they stopped by Caribou.
WATCH Sunlight's video: