Last June, the New York Times wrote an exposé of the Obama administration’s secret meetings with K Street lobbyists at a local Caribou Coffee outlet. The plan allowed the White House to connect with lobbyists without publicly acknowledging the meetings — and apparently avoided the reporting requirements for transparency imposed on the executive branch. By the time that article appeared, Eric Lichtblau reported “hundreds” of secret meetings between the Obama team and lobbyists at Caribou and other coffee shops around DC.
According to Politico, the practice continues to this day. They have just moved out of the coffee shops and into meeting rooms in Jackson Place, where the Secret Service doesn’t keep visitor logs or do background checks on visitors:
Caught between their boss’s anti-lobbyist rhetoric and the reality of governing, President Barack Obama’s aides often steer meetings with lobbyists to a complex just off the White House grounds – and several of the lobbyists involved say they believe the choice of venue is no accident.
It allows the Obama administration to keep these lobbyist meetings shielded from public view — and out of Secret Service logs collected on visitors to the White House and later released to the public. …
There are no records of meetings at the row houses just off Lafayette Square that house the White House Conference Center and the Council on Environmental Quality, home to two of the busiest meeting spaces. The White House can’t say who attended meetings there, or how often. The Secret Service doesn’t log in visitors or require a background check the way it does at the main gates of the White House.
Chris Frates also includes the earlier NYT reporting on Caribou Coffee consumption, although it’s unclear whether the Obama administration is still pursuing that strategy. One new wrinkle that has been implemented is a demand for confidentiality agreements from meeting participants:
And administration officials recently asked some lobbyists and others who met with them to sign confidentiality agreements barring them from disclosing what was discussed at meetings with administration officials, in that case a rental policy working group.
How would those confidentiality agreements work, anyway? Unless the discussion involved classified material, any attempt to enforce such agreements would face challenges based on both First Amendment and open-government laws. They would be less legally effective than non-compete clauses, and one would suspect that any administration — even this one — would be loathe to file a claim in court to silence a lobbyist. Normally, administrations enforce the informal understanding of confidentiality with lobbyists by freezing out those who violate trust, not by waving a piece of paper and saying, “You agreed to keep quiet!”
In any case, these efforts by the Obama administration have left the White House with all the transparency of a double-shot skinny latte venti. Obama got elected on the promise of more transparency and an end to back-room deals with lobbyists, so he set the bar on these issues and should be held accountable for the backwards direction his team has gone since he took office.