Friday, November 02, 2012

House Panel Demands Release Of Documents For Obama State Dinners, Unveils Video Blasting "Lavish" Presidential Spending

Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa wants a full accounting from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...
President Obama has hosted six State Dinners at the White House since taking office, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is now demanding that the Administration release all documents concerning what he calls "excessively lavish" spending for the black-tie affairs.  In a letter sent on Thursday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Issa asked for a wide range of documents as he repeatedly cited an article in the conservative newspaper The Washington Examiner that claimed to reveal details of State Dinner costs.  His Committee also today unveiled a video based on the article titled "Obama State Dinners: Spend Like He Says, Not Like He Does."  (Above, a screengrab from the video)

Issa's action comes on the heels of Republicans from the House Education and Workforce Committee challenging the Obama Administration on school lunch standards.  That Committee is also interested in perceived waste and overspending by the Obama Administration.

Using what it said are "official documents" obtained from "a knowledgeable government official," The Examiner claimed that "President Obama has spent far more lavishly on White House state dinners than previous chief executives," and alleged that the State Dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón cost $969,793, or $4,700 per attendee.  The paper also claimed that other Obama state dinners since 2009 have cost $500,000 or more each.  Neither the name of the official nor the documents were released.  

"During these tough economic times, Americans are reining in their spending wherever possible," Issa wrote to Clinton. "The executive branch should be mindful of this.  Reports of excessively lavish events, however, indicate the opposite."

Issa asked Clinton for a full accounting by 5:00 PM on Nov. 15, requesting documents "including but not limited to guidelines and memoranda relating to the planning, organization and execution of a state dinner." He also requested "a copy of all contracts or  agreements entered into with all non-government entertainers, chefs, and other non-government contractors," as well as all documents and communications related to State Dinners sent between the White House and the State Department.

The President's first two State Dinners, for India and for Mexico had celebrity chefs in charge of the menus.  High-profile entertainers, including major Obama supporter Beyoncé and longtime Obama supporter James Taylor, have performed at each State Dinner.  Herbie Hancock, who performed at the President's fiftieth birthday party, was among the performers for the China State dinner.

Issa in his letter also followed The Examiner's lead and questioned the role of event planner Bryan Rafanelli in the State Dinners.  Rafanelli's design house, Rafanelli Events, based in Boston, Massachusetts, provided all the decor and lighting designs for the President's State Dinners for Germany, for the Republic of Korea, and for the United Kingdom.  Rafanelli is a close enough friend of White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard, the man who overseas State Dinners for President Obama, that Bernard attended Rafanelli's 50th birthday party this summer in Provincetown, Mass.

Rafanelli's business partner, Mark Walsh, is deputy chief of the State Department's Office of Protocol, reported The Examiner.  The Office reimburses the White House executive residence for the State Dinners.  Rafanelli also designed the July 2010 wedding of Clinton's daughter Chelsea Clinton. 

The use of outside event planners seems to be a "departure from the practice of previous administrations, which relied on in-house planners for state dinners," Issa wrote to Clinton, referencing The Examiner.

The President's State Dinners have had between 230 and 335 invited guests each, depending on the dinner.  The events for India and the United Kingdom were held outdoors in huge pavilions on the South Lawn, which took days to construct and featured carpeting, lighting, and intricate floral decorations, as well as state-of-the-art sound systems and bullet proof windows.  Outbuildings were also attached with bathrooms as well as staging areas for the chefs.  The dinner for Mexico featured an old-fashioned trolly ferrying guests down to the bottom of the South Lawn; the dinner itself was inside the White House, but the reception that followed was in an outdoor pavilion that had the same appointments as for the other dinners.

The dinners for the leaders of China and South Korea were held inside the White House. The dinner for Germany took place outdoors in the Rose Garden, but there was no pavilion used.

The March 2012 State Dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron was notable in part because it was the largest President Obama hosted, and because of the large number of political donors who were invited.

The video:

In the video, the Oversight Committee ties the State Dinner query to another example of Administration spending it is investigating concerning the GSA.  A clip of President Obama giving a speech in May of 2009 is shown, with the President saying "all across this country Americans are responding to difficult times by tightening their belt. The question the American people is asking is whether Washington is prepared to act with the same sense of responsibility."

A photo is then displayed of the President and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the India State Dinner, along with a graphic showing the cost claimed by The Examiner.  "Is this responsible spending?" asks the voice-over narrator.  The video continues from there.  The Examiner article is reprinted in full with the video on the YouTube site.

*Issa's letter to Sec. Clinton [PDF]