POLITICS

Presidential Library Funding Lacks Donor Disclosure Requirements

04/25/2013 10:30 am ET | Updated Apr 25, 2013
AP

WASHINGTON -- In Dallas at Southern Methodist University, former President George W. Bush will attend the opening of his official presidential library on Thursday. The dedication will open the doors to a large complex that will tell the story of Bush's two terms in the White House and maintain the documents from those eight years. The George W. Bush Foundation had raised $415 million in private funds for the project through 2011, according to tax filings.

But don't expect to find out how much those funders gave any time soon.

Presidential libraries, while maintained in concert with the National Records and Archives Administration, rely on private donations for construction costs and any programming that goes beyond the maintenance of records. Those donations are not required to be made public and can come from any source, including foreign governments.

This unlimited, secret fundraising usually begins during a president's second term, if they are lucky enough to be reelected. George W. Bush raised $24 million for his library and foundation while still in office. This also means that President Barack Obama will soon begin soliciting large donations for his presidential library, whether it winds up in Chicago or Hawaii.

Scandals have arisen from the fundraising for nearly every presidential library in recent history. In 2008, the London Times secretly videotaped longtime George W. Bush fundraiser and associate Stephen Payne offering what he thought was a Central Asian dignitary access to the White House in exchange for a $250,000 contribution to the Bush library. Financier Marc Rich, convicted of tax evasion and trading with Iran during an embargo, received a pardon from President Bill Clinton after his ex-wife contributed $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library foundation. After President George H.W. Bush pardoned Edwin Cox Jr., convicted of bank fraud, his presidential library received a large donation from Cox's father.

"Undisclosed presidential library donations are an avenue for big money from anyone -- corporations, foreign governments or just people in the United States -- to just influence policy while the president is still in office," said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the pro-transparency group Sunlight Foundation.

Bills to force presidential libraries to disclose their donors have received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. Large majorities in the House passed presidential library disclosure bills in 2002, 2007 and 2009. The bill would have passed the Senate in 2007, but then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) put a hold on it, preventing its passage.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) introduced the same bill (H.R. 1133) again in the 113th Congress. The bill would require all presidential libraries to disclose online the names and dollar amounts for any donations above $200.

"When there is no requirement for disclosing the donor or the amounts being donated, there is great potential for abuse," Duncan said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "This is not a partisan issue. I introduced and have supported this legislation under both Democratic and Republican presidents."

President Obama supported this legislation when he served in the Senate and during his first presidential campaign. In fact, he used the issue of presidential library disclosure to his benefit during the divisive Democratic primary with Hillary Clinton, when he argued that President Clinton should have to disclose the identity of donors to his library.

On Tuesday, however, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, when asked whether the president supported legislation to disclose presidential library donations, deflected the question by stating, "I'm not even aware of the legislation."

When George W. Bush's library opens on Thursday, it will provide a limited amount of disclosure. According to a USA Today report, the library will include bricks in the building that feature the names of 161 donors who each gave more than $1 million. It will disclose the names of other donors as well, although not online and it is not clear whether the amounts of their donations will be listed.

Schuman argues that this is not nearly enough. "That's not really disclosure. Real disclosure needs to be online, in real time, in ways that anybody can access it and make use of that information."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the present Congress as the 114th.

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