The year before he joined the White House staff, President Barack Obama’s senior adviser David Plouffe accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from organizations and companies with interests connected to U.S. foreign policy, telecommunications, business and regulation.
Plouffe disclosed 20 honoraria from 2010, totaling about $500,000, in a federal financial disclosure report filed in January 2011. The report also showed dozens of additional speeches for which Plouffe was paid more than $5,000 for which he wasn’t required to disclose the precise amounts or dates.
Plouffe declined to comment. The White House, which is pressing Republican challenger Mitt Romney to release more of his tax returns, wouldn’t provide details of Plouffe’s speaking engagements beyond what was in listed in the disclosure forms. For speeches before 2010, the forms required Plouffe only to give the name of organizations that paid him more than $5,000. Dates and amounts paid aren’t listed.
Republicans are highlighting one of the payments after the Washington Post reported that Plouffe was paid $100,000 for two speeches in Nigeria by a subsidiary of MTN Group Ltd, Africa’s largest wireless operator, in December 2010. The Post said the parent company has been under scrutiny by the U.S. because of its dealings with Iran and Syria. There were no legal restrictions on Plouffe’s speech, the Post said.
“Anytime you start talking about $100,000, red flags should have gone up right away,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, an advocacy group in Washington. “He’d have to think about why is someone giving him that kind of money for a speech.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said criticism of Plouffe’s speeches before he joined the White House is “misplaced.” He said Republicans didn’t criticize former advisers to President George W. Bush for giving paid speeches to companies that also had dealings with Iran.
“This is clearly politics,” he said of criticism from the Republican National Committee.
Honoraria from 2010 appearances reported by Plouffe also included $12,000 each from the Credit Union National Association, National Association for Home Care and Hospice, Boston Consulting Group, and $24,000 each from Fidelity Investment Services and the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers and wholesalers.
The disclosure report did not describe the nature of Plouffe’s presentations to each group. A brochure from the Food Marketing Institute’s 2010 Midwinter Executive Conference said Plouffe would speak as part of a session on how changing demographics were shaping the economic and political landscape.
The disclosure form showed Plouffe also was paid $48,000 for speaking in Istanbul in March 1010 to Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, another telecommunications company that sought business in Iran and Syria. Turkcell, which was originally awarded an Iranian mobile-phone license that later went to MTN, sued MTN earlier this year for $4.2 billion in damages.
Romney is a past investor in Turkcell, according to a financial disclosure form he filed last year, a fact highlighted by Obama’s campaign organization. The shares, which have since been sold, were held by a blind trust that Romney has said he does not manage.
Plouffe’s other paid speeches also raise questions about what influence groups are seeking with the administration, Holman said. “You either have a real lot of money to burn or you’re trying to do influence peddling,” or both, he said of the groups hiring speakers such as Plouffe.
Democratic strategist James Carville said $100,000 for two speeches in Nigeria is “market value for somebody like David Plouffe,” and “I’d say it if it were a Republican speaker, too.”
Carville said that for many companies that pay such fees for speakers, “What they’re usually looking for is not political influence but to draw somebody who’d be of interest” to their organization or clients.
The Washington Speakers Bureau, which represented Plouffe and represents other former Obama and Bush administration officials, didn’t return calls for comment.