WASHINGTON – When it comes to job benefits, Matthew Barzun is about to enjoy some of the best. As the new U.S. ambassador to the U.K., he’ll live in Winfield House, a London mansion set on 12 acres with gardens second only to those in Buckingham Palace in size.
He’ll be able to borrow art from museums for free and host the president as an overnight guest when he’s in town.
Barzun, a technology entrepreneur nominated this month to the Court of St. James’s, earned those perks: He raised at least $1.2 million as finance chairman for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
While Obama ran in 2008 on a pledge to limit the influence of money in politics, a review of ambassadorial appointments five years into his presidency shows that big donors have landed dozens of top overseas assignments. Since the president’s November re-election alone, posts in Italy, Belgium and Spain, as well as London, among other assignments, have gone to donors.
At least 26 of Obama’s current and nominated ambassadors were major Democratic campaign contributors, giving a total of at least $13.6 million to him, the Democratic Party, and congressional candidates, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“When he talked about toughening up lobbying rules, the sense was that this is a president really committed to international engagement,” said Dan Kurtzer, a 29-year veteran of the foreign service and former ambassador to Egypt and Israel under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “Instead, we so devalue diplomacy that we assume anyone can walk off the street and do it.”
Other ambassadorships have gone to people who helped the president in less-financially tangible ways. Their ranks were joined yesterday by Caroline Kennedy, the surviving child of former President John F. Kennedy who was selected to be ambassador to Japan. Though Kennedy wasn’t a major fundraiser, her endorsement of Obama’s candidacy in 2008 gave him an early boost in the presidential primaries.
While the practice of naming campaign supporters to diplomatic posts goes back decades, Obama’s quick adoption of the tradition has disappointed State Department veterans. And with six years of supporters now competing for a diminishing number of slots, the competition among donors has intensified.
Donors-turned-ambassadors gave an average of at least $523,000 to Democratic candidates from 2008-2014, according to data gathered from Federal Election Commission records and Obama campaign disclosures.
The total amount of contributions may be significantly higher. Internal financial documents obtained last September by the New York Times show that the ambassadors’ total contributions would be at least $21.6 million.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama has “chosen some distinguished Americans to represent our country in foreign capitals. None of them was chosen because they supported the president’s campaign and none of them should have been ruled out just because they did,” he said in a statement.
Mel Sembler, a Republican fundraiser who served as ambassador to Australia and Italy during the presidencies of President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said political appointees bring presidential clout that diplomats can lack.
“You have direct access,” he said. “The people who are selected to go out as ambassador can directly call the president or the national security adviser. That makes more of an impact when you’re at post.”
Obama’s record of selecting political allies for diplomatic posts differs little from that of his predecessors.
Since Obama took office in 2009, almost 65 percent of his appointees have been career foreign service officers and 35 percent political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association, which tracks the selections. That’s roughly in line with presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan.
Still, the continued reliance on political ties has drawn scorn at home and abroad. “Did we pick bundlers to go to Afghanistan to direct our troops?” said Clyde Prestowitz, who once led U.S. trade negotiations with Japan and is now president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington.
Prestowitz took issue with Kennedy’s nomination for Tokyo, saying neither she nor the current envoy, John Roos, a technology lawyer and top Obama donor, speak Japanese.
With Japan formally joining U.S.-led talks for a Trans- Pacific trade agreement this week, U.S.-Japanese relations are at a pivotal point, he said. “We’re playing this game with one hand tied behind our back,” Prestowitz said.
When Obama appointed Louis Susman, a Chicago businessman who’d raised at least $317,000 for Democratic candidates during the president’s first term, as ambassador to the U.K., London papers reacted with outrage. The Daily Telegraph headlined its report, “Ultimate Prize for ‘Vacuum Cleaner’ ” - a reference to the nickname Susman earned during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign for his ability to collect contributions.
Italy, where ambassadors live in the historic Villa Taverna in Rome, is also a plum post for political donors, who can enjoy a 5,000-bottle, $1.1 million wine cellar funded by contributions from American and Italian vintners during their time abroad.
Earlier this month, the administration tapped John Phillips, a Washington lawyer who raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s re-election campaign, for the job. If confirmed, he’ll replace financial investor David Thorne, an Obama donor who is Kerry’s former brother-in-law and presidential-campaign treasurer.
The foreign service association has urged Obama to reduce, or even eliminate, political ambassadorial appointments.
“Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto ‘three-year rental’ of ambassadorships,” the group wrote in a 2012 statement from its governing board. “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, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades.”
Before taking office Obama hinted that he intended to continue the practice of giving donors top slots abroad, even as he stressed that “high quality civil servants are going to be rewarded.”
“There probably will be some” political appointees serving abroad, he said at a news conference on Jan. 9, 2009. “It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service.”
Another advantage of placing wealthy donors in the jobs: deep pockets. Ambassadors make a maximum base salary of $179,700, and the frequent parties and dinners they throw can cost hundreds of thousands more, far more than is covered by their State Department budgets. Some wind up paying more than $1 million a year out of their own pockets, according to one of the president’s top donors who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to discuss private conversations.
Those who lack the personal fortune often turn to the business community for help. When he was ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001, Kurtzer solicited corporate donations to fund the embassy’s annual July 4 party, he said. The 2,000-person affair at the Cairo Opera House featuring American performers and a fireworks show cost at least $100,000.
“We were entertaining, or being entertained, at least six out of seven nights a week,” he recalled. “Our record was seven events in one night.”
The postings don’t always work out. Cynthia Stroum, a major Democratic fundraiser named by Obama as ambassador to Luxembourg, left the embassy in a “state of dysfunction” after creating a work environment that was “aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating” according to a January 2011 report by the State Department’s inspector general.
The former ambassador to the Bahamas, Nicole Avant, created an “extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement,” after spending more than 40 percent of her time out of the country – largely in her Los Angeles home, according to a 2012 inspector general’s report.
Avant returned home to raise funds for Obama’s second term, hosting first lady Michelle Obama on the candle-lit patio of the Beverly Hills home she shares with her husband, Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, in January 2012, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The 135-person event raised almost $1 million for the campaign, the paper said.