Obama campaign reports more than 350 big bundlers, including Solyndra figures

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President Barack Obama walks down the steps from Air Force One.

Ann Heisenfeit/AP

More than 350 big money bundlers have contributed at least $55 million so far this year to President Obama’s re-election efforts, according to an iWatch News analysis of the campaign’s Friday disclosure.  And more than 40 bundlers each roped in at least $500,000.

Among the 358 big bundlers are two men prominently tied to the ongoing Solyndra controversy.

Included in those totals are 114 new bundlers who had not been reported as bundlers in the first half of the year, almost a 50 percent increase from just three months ago. Another 80 bundlers disclosed last summer have notably increased their efforts for Obama.

The Solyndra-related bundlers are Steve Westly and Steven Spinner, whose names have figured prominently in communications related to the solar startup, which went bankrupt even after receiving more than half a billion dollars in federal loan guarantees from the Energy Department.

Overall, the campaign and the Democratic National Committee raised more than $70 million this quarter. While less than the $86 million reported by Obama in the second quarter, the total nonetheless dwarfs even the closest Republican challenger. Texan Gov. Rick Perry announced his campaign had raised $17 million during this period, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had over $14 million for the quarter.

There is no legal requirement for campaigns to disclose the names of their bundlers, and despite cries from good government groups, none of the Republican candidates have shown a willingness to publicly name their star donors.  In 2008, major candidates from the Democrats and the GOP released their bundler information; so far this cycle only the Obama campaign has followed that practice. The campaign discloses it’s bundlers in four levels: $50-100,000; $100-200,000; $200-500,000 and $500,000+. It is impossible to tell exactly how much each bundler raised, but it is possible to arrive at a minimum of $55 million from this relatively small group.

Despite the reliance on bundlers, the campaign continues to rack up impressive individual donor numbers as well. The campaign claims that 606,027 individuals donated during the third quarter, with 98 percent of the donations at $250 or less, with an average gift of $56.

Fundraisers have been held jointly by the campaign and the DNC. Many bundlers have focused on getting checks for the maximum that can be given to the DNC and the campaign combined, or $35,800 per person. Of that total $5,000 can go to the campaign, checks that became part of its haul of $47 million. $42.8 million has reportedly gone to the campaign, with $27.3 million going to the DNC.

Campaign money is expected to be just one front in the political battles over the next year. Both Democrats and Republicans have signaled that they intend to invest heavily in outside groups. In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, these groups can accept unlimited donations but are barred from coordinating directly with the campaigns.

The Republican aligned American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, both tied to GOP consultant Karl Rove, have indicated they intend spend heavily in the next elections. The groups raised $71 million raised for the 2010 congressional elections but expect to easily surpass that; after initially declaring a goal of $120 million for this cycle, they doubled their goal to an astonishing $240 million.

Democrats have attempted to counter by forming their own outside groups, including Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, formed by two former Obama aides, who stated a goal of raising $100 million this cycle. In the first six months of this year, these two groups and several others backing Democrats in the Senate and House raised a combined total of just over $10 million. However, the Democratic groups have struggled with coordinating among themselves, causing six groups to come together earlier this month to ensure better coordination.

And with their own outside groups still getting off the ground, the Obama campaign still plans to raise historic levels of cash. iWatch News reported this summer that Obama campaign manager Jim Messina asked about 450 leading fundraisers to bring in $350,000 each by the end of this year, and that bundlers were also told they were expected to pull in the same amount next year— an extraordinary $700,000 per bundler over the course of the president’s re-election effort.

It may be a stiffer challenge than many expected. One of Obama’s bundlers, Peter Buttenwieser, told iWatch News that the amount the campaign reported “is a healthy amount by any standard and ought to be sufficient to keep the planning for the campaign moving along.”

But Buttenwieser, who bundled at least $500,000 for Obama in 2008 and has bundled at least $50,000 this cycle, added, “Anyone doing fundraising for the President and Senate candidates is finding it more difficult now than four or five years ago. This is in large part due to the economic situation and the political stalemate in Washington, which has been a deterrent to fundraising.”

In particular, the Obama campaign has struggled to win support from Wall Street, which has been suspicious of his administration’s policies and downright hostile to the Dodd-Frank financial reforms passed last year. A report in September found that 100 Obama donors from Wall Street have switched sides to back Romney. Obama has recruited former New Jersey governor and current CEO of brokerage firm MF Global,  Jon Corzine, a $500,000+ bundler in his own right, to try and shore up his New York financial support. Corzine has already held a high-end fundraiser and organized a secret meet-and-greet between finance executives and Obama’s new chief of staff.

In contrast, the elites of Hollywood have maintained their loyalty to the President. Among his $500,000 bundlers are two moguls, DreamWorks animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein. Ken Solomon, the Tennis Channel CEO, and HBO executive James Costos joined them atop the list, along with Michael Smith, the famed interior decorator. Two California sherpas – Andy Spahn, an associate of Steven Spielberg, and Noah Mamet – who serve as go-betweens for the talent and the politicians, were also on the list, as was John Emerson, an investment manager and longtime party fundraiser.

Among other notable bundlers:

Christine Forester, a top bundler from 2008 and vice chair of Obama’s national finance committee in 2008, was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2009. A native of Switzerland, she heads Christine Forester Catalyst, a business marketing and branding consulting firm and has bundled at least $500,000 in just this quarter.

Sally Susman runs communications for drug giant Pfizer, which flooded Capitol Hill with lobbyists to the tune of $26 million in 2009 while the debate of Obama’s health care legislation ramped up. She too bundled over $500,000 this cycle.

Matthew Barzun, also a bundler in Obama’s 2008 campaign, gave up his diplomatic post as U.S. ambassador to Sweden to serve as the Obama campaign’s 2012 national finance chair.

Tom and Andi Bernstein are longtime supporters of George W. Bush, even joining him in purchasing the Texas Rangers in 1988, but they are both registered Democrats. The couple were bundlers for Obama’s 2008 campaign and were also contributors to Bush’s presidential campaigns. In 2010, Obama appointed Tom chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Bundlers are well-connected and wealthy individuals who typically hit up friends and business associates for political donations, sometimes at large events. The fundraisers then present the checks to political campaigns in “bundles.”

The practice is widespread and can be controversial because it allows campaigns to skirt individual contribution limits of $2,500 in federal elections, and gives extra cachet to aggressive and well-connected fundraisers. Despite the Obama campaign’s impressively wide donor base in 2008, the roughly 550 bundlers contributed about 10 percent of the overall $745 million raised that election.

And bundling has its rewards. About 200 of the bundlers from 2008 have received various perks including jobs in the administration like ambassadorships, appointments to governmental boards or government contracts, according to an earlier investigation by iWatch News. Several bundlers went from soliciting political contributions to working from within the Energy Department as it showered billions in taxpayer-backed stimulus money on alternative energy firms.

Several Obama bundlers also had hands in wireless company LightSquared, now the focus of Congressional investigations into whether their political connections to the Obama White House secured approval for a controversial product.

Bundler Ties to Solyndra

Those bundlers who didn’t receive jobs can still have the ear of the White House, such as investor Steve Westly, A bundler in 2008, Westly has enjoyed easy access to the White House at the same time companies in his investment portfolio have received more than a half billion dollars in grants and loans since 2009. Earlier this year, he emailed Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers, to warn her about political fallout that could ensue if the president visited the factory being built by Solyndra.

“Could you perhaps check with [the Energy Department] to make sure they’re comfortable with the company? I just want to help protect the president from anything that could result in negative or unfair press,” Westly wrote on May 24, 2010. “If it’s too late to change/postpone the meeting, the president should be careful about unrealistic/optimistic forecasts that could haunt him in the next 18 months if Solyndra hits the wall, files for bankruptcy.”

In August 2010, Westly was appointed to a high-powered advisory board to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Before that appointment, four companies in the Westly Group portfolio secured more than a half billion dollars in DOE support, iWatch News and ABC News reported. Last month – while Westly continues to raise money for Obama and advise Chu – a fifth firm secured DOE backing. Energy Department officials said the loans and grants were awarded on merit.

Another prolific bundler, Steven J. Spinner, lobbied for Solyndra from his position as a political appointee within the Energy Department.

“How hard is this? What is he waiting for?” Steven J. Spinner, who worked in the Obama administration's energy loan guarantee program, wrote in August 2009. “I have OVP [the Office of the Vice President] and WH [the White House] breathing down my neck on this.”

Spinner, a high-tech consultant and energy investor who raised at least $500,000 for Obama's 2008 campaign, joined the DOE in April 2009 and left in September 2010. In the lengthy email discussions that occurred in the days before the Solyndra loan closed in September 2009, Spinner emerges as a key figure in advocating for getting the deal done, apparently in an effort to score the loan as a political victory for Obama. Many of the emails surround his efforts to coordinate plans for either Obama or Biden to announce it as the administration’s first loan approval – one that he repeatedly notes will create clean energy jobs.

It is Spinner, for instance, who pushes for a “big event” with “golden shovels, bulldozers, hardhats, etc.”

The emails occurred less than two weeks after Spinner received a three-paged ethics agreement in which he pledges he will “not participate in any discussion regarding any application involving [his wife’s law firm] Wilson [Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati].”

The $535 million loan to Solyndra was ultimately approved in 2009 and for months was touted by Obama as a model of his efforts to create new jobs in the emerging field of clean energy. But in late August, the company abruptly shut its doors and days later declared it was filing for bankruptcy. Now the loan, part of the federal stimulus to jolt economic recovery and create jobs, is the subject of multiple investigations, by Congress and by the Justice Department, and taxpayers may be on the hook.

A question of transparency

Even as it released campaign bundler details on Friday, which the Republican candidates have refused to do thus far, the Obama administration filed notice Friday it would appeal a judge's ruling that Secret Service records of visitors to the White House complex are subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Justice Department is appealing a federal judge's ruling in August that the so-called WAVES records belong to the White House even though they are maintained and used by the Secret Service. iWatch News reported in April that the logs were riddled with errors and omissions. 

Peter Stone, Elizabeth Lucas, John Aloysius Farrell, Paul Abowd and Rachael Marcus all contributed to this report.