Obama Offers Prime Posts to Those Who Helped Bankroll Campaign
Bloomberg.com: News
By Jonathan D. Salant and Julianna Goldman

May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Louis Susman has one thing in common with many of his predecessors nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom: money.

Susman, 71, a retired Citigroup Inc. senior investment banker, raised between $200,000 and $500,000 for President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and another $300,000 for his inauguration. On Wednesday, Obama nominated Susman to the post formally known as the Court of St. James.

Like Andrew Mellon, Joseph Kennedy and Walter Annenberg before him, Susman’s credentials stem more from involvement in financing party politics than foreign policy experience.

Even with his pledges to change government, Obama is following the tradition of his predecessors by offering some ambassadorships to top campaign backers, including four of the 12 nominations this week. The president acknowledged in a news conference in January that donors might get plum postings.

“The practice of rewarding donors is a remnant of the spoils system that we abolished in the civil service,” said career diplomat Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former ambassador to Afghanistan. “It is a dismal testimony to the importance of money in our electoral system.”

“That said, the republic will survive the president selling a few embassies.”

Reagan Appointment

Susman is a former vice chairman of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup. He was finance chairman for John Kerry’s 2004 Democratic presidential campaign and raised money for the presidential runs of Senators Edward Kennedy and Bill Bradley.

Besides Susman, those nominated on May 27 include:

-- John Roos, chief executive officer of the Palo Alto, California-based law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, to Japan. He raised more than $500,000 for Obama.

-- Charles Rivkin, chief executive officer of Wildbrain Inc., to France. Rivkin collected more than $500,000 for Obama’s campaign and $300,000 for his inauguration.

-- Laurie Fulton, a partner with Williams & Connolly LLP, to Denmark. Fulton, 59, raised $100,000 to $200,000.

Susman said he was “excited by the opportunity to serve our country.” A call to Fulton was referred to the White House. Roos, 54, and Rivkin, 47, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Rewarding Rooney

Two other nominees -- Vilma Martinez, 65, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in California, to Argentina, and Miguel Diaz, 46, a theology professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, to the Vatican -- gave to Obama.

On St. Patrick’s Day, Obama named Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, as ambassador to Ireland. Rooney, 76, a Republican, endorsed Obama last year.

“The system, despite any desires, is not basically going to change in this administration or any other,” said former ambassador Mort Abramowitz, who spent more than 30 years in the State Department.

On Jan. 9, when Obama conceded he wouldn’t abandon the practice, he said, “It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service.”

‘Committed Individuals’

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, called the nominees “a group of committed individuals and proven professionals that are eager to serve their country.”

Since John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, about one- third of ambassadorships have gone to campaign donors or other politically connected individuals, according to the American Academy of Diplomacy.

“It’s very prestigious being the ambassador and living in a large residence,” said John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Wealthy ambassadors have paid to help refurbish their residences abroad or to throw parties. Annenberg, U.S. ambassador under President Richard Nixon, spent almost $1 million renovating his quarters, according to the New York Times.

Between January 2001 and January 2007, President George W. Bush named 124 people to foreign posts. Fifty-three had raised at least $100,000 for his presidential campaigns, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group.

Ameriquest

One was Roland Arnall, the founder of Ameriquest Mortgage Co., a subprime lender, who served as ambassador to the Netherlands. Ameriquest and its subsidiaries gave $1 million to Bush’s 2005 inaugural committee.

Former President Bill Clinton named M. Larry Lawrence, owner of the landmark Hotel del Coronado near San Diego and a campaign donor, as ambassador to Switzerland. Lawrence’s body was later exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery amid allegations that his claims of Merchant Marine service were fraudulent.

Some career diplomats are trying to change the practice. Neumann and Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador, wrote letters to both major presidential nominees last year asking them to limit political appointees to 10 percent of ambassadorships.

“Too often ambassadorships have served as political rewards for unqualified candidates,” they wrote.

Some Obama appointments have drawn praise. Abramowitz cited former U.S. Representative Tim Roemer of Indiana as ambassador to India and Jon Huntsman, the Republican governor of Utah, as ambassador to China. “It’s largely better than previous administrations,” he said.

Abramowitz said there will always be appointments that are naturally suited toward non-career officials.

“People aren’t going to worry about who goes to Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at [email protected] ; Julianna Goldman in Washington at [email protected] .

Last Updated: May 29, 2009 00:00 EDT