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Obama succumbs to dark money’s allure

Blithely ignoring his own past warnings, President Obama is wading ever deeper into a campaign and politics quagmire filled with potential hazard for his second term. He ought to come to his senses.

If he doesn’t, it won’t be easy to clean this muck off his shoes later on.

The president’s team has formed Organizing for Action, a group intended to advance his priorities using the potent grass-roots technology and troops from his winning re-election campaign. According to a summary prepared for donors, this includes 2.2 million volunteers, 33 million Facebook friends, 22 million Twitter followers and 17 million email subscribers. We see nothing wrong with that.

But how the Obama people are going about it stinks. They have registered the group as a 501(c)4 organization, under a section of the Internal Revenue Code that provides tax-exempt status for “social welfare” organizations, a broad category originally envisioned for civic leagues and the like but which has become a favored dark alley for political operators. They are not required to disclose donors or amounts of contributions, as they would be if they operated under the rules of the Federal Elections Commission.

As “social welfare” groups, they must pledge that their work is not “primarily” electoral politics, but that has been left ill-defined by tax authorities. Some electoral and political activity is allowed.

These “social welfare” groups seemed to blossom in the last election cycle, with Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS at the forefront. Big money given in secret is a corrupting influence on our politics. But it is even more worrisome for a sitting president to be fielding such a group.

It seems to be an open invitation to donors who want access and influence on policy decisions.

Judging by recent reports, Organizing for Action should be renamed Paying for Access. The Obama team has been talking about raising half the group’s money through $500,000 donations from top supporters. They will apparently be offered a spot on an advisory board with the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president.

The White House has confirmed that while the president and his aides won’t directly raise money for the group, they will appear at its events. That will give big donors the chance to ask Obama about a pet project or appointment, behavior that has become all too common in Washington and carries more than a whiff of influence-peddling.

Moreover, Obama’s team says that donations will not be listed precisely; rather, they will be listed “in ranges.” This affords the donors a useful veil.

The president ought to resist the sweet perfume of this money and grab the smelling salts. He was the one who a few years ago warned us of “a new stampede of special-interest money in our politics.” Now Obama seems to be leading the stampede.

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