Since he founded the Center for American Progress a decade ago, John Podesta has built the liberal think tank into a fundraising juggernaut that rakes in between $30 million and $40 million a year from donors.
But as Podesta enters the West Wing in the role of counselor to President Barack Obama, the White House and CAP are being forced to examine the awkward relationship between the donors he’s courted and the public policy decisions they want from the president.
And as Podesta’s fundraising prowess and progressive bona fides become a source of political attacks, CAP and the White House are responding with moves that may help inoculate him from criticism that he’s operating in the shadows to benefit his longtime benefactors.
CAP will publicly disclose a list of its corporate donors as early as Friday morning, officials at the foundation said.
Because CAP is organized under the section of the tax code designed for charities and other public-service organizations, it does not have to disclose its contributors. But CAP’s board — which had come under fire from some of its allies on the left after a report in the liberal magazine The Nation that it took money from Comcast, Walmart and defense contractors — decided over the summer to begin notifying funders that the list would be released at the end of this year. Podesta’s impending move to the White House accelerated that timetable.
CAP officials say that Podesta gave up his role as chief fundraiser two years ago when he handed the reins of the organization to the current President and CEO Neera Tanden, though he remained the chairman of the board.
“I don’t think he even knows who our corporate supporters are,” Tanden said in a Thursday interview.
Earlier this week, the White House announced that Podesta won’t involve himself in the decision-making process on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which CAP and some of its heavyweight contributors oppose. White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest took issue with reporters describing the decision as a “recusal.”
“There’s no suggestion of some sort of conflict of interest, financial or otherwise, as it relates to Mr. Podesta’s opinions, views and positions on the Keystone pipeline. So ‘recuse’ is not the right word,” Earnest said.
The reasons for Podesta’s exclusion from Keystone, Earnest said, are that its fate is currently in the hands of the State Department, having Podesta weigh in at the end might not be helpful to the process, and “there are people who have been working on this for a number of years and who are looking at this from a variety of perspectives, and want to make sure that this policy outcome reflects the President’s views and can approach it in an impartial way.”
Podesta draws a salary a $200,000 salary from CAP, according to its tax filings, and he could go back to raising money for the organization in the future.
The political veteran is no stranger to weighing government officials’ transparency against the legal rights of a foundation. Five years ago, he was head of the presidential transition team when Obama required former President Bill Clinton to disclose donors to his foundation in order to clear the way for Hillary Clinton to become secretary of State.
A review of CAP contributors named in Internal Revenue Service filings and news reports shows a substantial set of special interests have funded Podesta’s progressivism and now have a close friend in close proximity to the Oval Office. Corporations account for just 6 percent of CAP’s fundraising totals, Tanden said, a figure far below those of many Washington think tanks.
The rest of the money comes from individuals and fellow nonprofits.
Foundations created by billionaire Swiss investor Hansjorg Wyss, an ardent advocate for the preservation of land, have dumped millions of dollars into CAP. From 2010 through 2012, Wyss’s HJW Foundation gave a total of $3,718,000 to CAP, with the biggest infusion — a $1.59 million donation that accounted for about 4 percent of CAP’s funding — coming in 2012. In praising the selection of Podesta to serve as a counselor to Obama, environmental activists have cited the former Clinton White House chief of staff’s fidelity to conservation issues and noted that the administration can take executive action to protect land.
Tanden said that, unlike corporate contributors, Wyss’s foundations don’t have a “monetary stake” in the outcome of public policy decisions.
“The challenge the White House faces and CAP faces is now anything he does in the White House that at all has to do with CAP’s mission or the interests of its funders will be tainted,” a Republican Capitol Hill aide who has studied nonprofits said before CAP announced its decision on corporate donors. “There’s no perfect answer to something like this because it’s so big, but some larger level of disclosure of CAP is the only sort of way to resolve something like this.”
CAP plans to expand its disclosures in 2014. Beginning next year, prospective contributors will be notified that if they give, their names will become public, Tanden said.
Meanwhile, the White House is getting pressure from the left to let Podesta into the discussion on Keystone. An online petition asking the president not to “silence” him has attracted more than 25,000 signatures.
More than 25,000 people have signed a petition calling on the White House not to “silence” John Podesta when it comes to the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“Tell President Obama: If anyone should be recused from discussion of Keystone XL, it’s the ethically compromised ERM, not John Podesta,” the petition, sponsored by CREDO Action, reads. “Don’t silence key White House advisors who tell the truth about tar sands and climate change.”
ERM — Environmental Resources Management — is a company that conducted an environmental impact assessment that the State Department is using as it decides whether to approve the pipeline project. Some of the company’s staff have previously worked for entities that stand to benefit from Keystone, according to news reports.
Melanie Sloan, head of the government watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, said Podesta’s been so close to the president for so long that the new job doesn’t really warrant any new disclosures.
“I don’t think that much has changed except he’s going on the payroll,” Sloan said. “He’s been working for Obama for a while. The fallacy of this argument is that he’s just starting.”
Dec 12, 2013 1:14 AM EST
By AMY FORLITI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A Minnesota National Guardsman and Iraq war veteran charged with fraud for allegedly stealing personal information of roughly 400 members of his former Army unit was likely responsible for analyzing the military’s enemy intelligence.
Keith Michael Novak, 25, planned to use the stolen names, Social Security numbers and security clearance levels to create fake identities for members of his militia group. He also wanted to sell the information and use the money to expand his radio communications capability, according to an affidavit and criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
The affidavit said he also took combat gear from his former unit at Fort Bragg, N.C., including flak jackets and prepared “gear bags,” for members of his militia group.
Novak, of Maplewood, was in federal custody Thursday and unavailable for comment. The federal defender’s office has the case, but no attorney had been chosen to represent him by Thursday evening.
His father, whose home was searched Wednesday, has an unlisted number. Attempts to reach him Thursday by phone and email were unsuccessful.
Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokeswoman, said in an email that, in general, “appropriate precautionary actions will be taken in this matter.”
According to the affidavit, Novak was an active-duty soldier and intelligence analyst with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg from Feb. 26, 2009, to Sept. 3, 2012, and served in Iraq in 2010. He is currently a human intelligence analyst with the Minnesota National Guard, serving one weekend a month.
When Novak was in the Army, he would have been responsible for giving personnel information about enemy forces and potential battle areas. Other duties typically include assessing the significance of incoming information and preparing maps, charts and intelligence reports, according to a job description on the Army’s website.
Novak went to a training camp in Utah in late January and met two undercover FBI employees who posed as members of a Utah-based militia, the affidavit said. Novak told the undercover employees that he took classified materials from Fort Bragg and would share the materials with them.
In July, the undercover employees came to Minnesota, where Novak gave them an electronic copy of classified documents and taught them how to encrypt files, the affidavit said. He also said that he had a personnel roster of a “Battalion’s-worth of people” from his former unit.
The undercover employees said they knew someone who could make fake IDs, which Novak said he needed for his militia, the affidavit said.
Robert Levinson, who would now be 65, vanished after traveling in March 2007 to the Iranian island of Kish, described by The Associated Press as a resort “awash with tourists, smugglers and organized crime figures.”
He was being paid to gather intelligence on Iran by a team of analysts who had no authority to run spy operations in what amounted to “an extraordinary breach of the most basic CIA rules,” the AP writes.
Since Levinson was in the process of negotiating a new contract with the agency, “After he vanished, CIA officials told Congress in closed hearings as well as the FBI that Levinson did not have a current relationship with the agency and downplayed its ties with him,” a co-author of the AP investigative article, Adam Goldman, wrote in .
For years after his disappearance, the U.S. publicly described Levinson “as a private citizen who traveled to the tiny Persian Gulf island on private business.”
The Two Way’s Mark Memmot wrote about Levinson two years ago, when his family publicly pleaded for his release.
Within the CIA, the revelation of the rogue operation with Levinson as point man, “prompted a major internal investigation that had wide-ranging repercussions at Langley, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive case,” the Post says.
The CIA “ultimately concluded it was responsible for Levinson while he was in Iran and paid $2.5 million to his wife, Christine,” the Post says, quoting unnamed U.S. intelligence officials.
"Levinson’s whereabouts are unknown today. Investigators can’t even say for certain whether he’s still alive. The last proof of life came about three years ago when the Levinson family received a video of him and later pictures of him shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit."
“‘I have been held here for three-and-a-half years,’ he says in the video. ‘I am not in good health.’”
"U.S. intelligence officials concede that if he is alive, Levinson, who would now be 65, probably would have told his captors about his work for the CIA as he was likely subjected to harsh interrogation."
In response to the AP story, National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden released the following statement Thursday evening:
"Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life," Hayden said. "We regret that the AP would choose to run a story that does nothing to further the cause of bringing him home. The investigation into Mr. Levinson’s disappearance continues, and we all remain committed to finding him and bringing him home safely to his family."