When President Barack Obama rolled out his new political outfit last week, he and his allies declared it would be powered by grassroots activists and change politics from outside Washington.
In its first days, Organizing for Action has closely affiliated itself with insider liberal organizations funded by mega-donors like George Soros and corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Citi and Duke Energy.
And it has quietly sought support from the same rich donors who backed Obama's campaigns, asking for help from Democratic donors and bundlers in town for the Inauguration at a closed-door corporate-sponsored confab that featured Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker.
In fact, invitations for the Saturday meeting at the Newseum where Organizing for Action was unveiled for the liberal big-money set came from Obama's National Finance Committee (one member of which gave a transferable ticket to POLITICO), as well as the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters.
Dubbed the "Road Ahead" meeting, the conference was sponsored by a White House-allied trade association called Business Forward, which is funded by major corporations including Microsoft, Walmart and PG&E - each of which sent senior executives to participate in a panel on how to boost American economic competitiveness.
Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager and the Organizing for Action national chairman, and OfA Director Jon Carson, pleaded with invited big donors to support the new group. "We need you. This president needs you," Messina said, adding Organizing for Action was "building a national advisory board filled with people in this room."
Carson told the donors, who were treated to cocktails and light hors d'oeuvres after the day's sessions, "there's going to be a place for each and every one of you."
Grassroots activists? They got their own pitch the next day at a bigger, no-invitation-necessary gathering called the "Obama Campaign Legacy Conference" held at the Washington Hilton. There, Carson told reporters that OfA would "absolutely" be funded mostly by grassroots donors like those Obama highlighted in his campaign, rather than big corporate donors.
An OfA spokeswoman declined to comment on the group's presentation at the Newseum, its fundraising or relationship with other deep-pocketed liberal groups.
At the Newseum, Messina noted OfA's strengths, including the "20-some-million" email list, and cast the new group as a means to harness both grassroots energy and sophisticated -- and expensive -- campaign infrastructure.
"We're not going to shut this thing down," he said. "We're going to turn it into a 501(c)4. The country simply needs it."
And despite it's pledge to allow local activists to chart its course in their communities, OfA also seems poised to become the center of a constellation of mostly secret-money nonprofit groups.
At the Newseum, Messina name-checked the Common Purpose Project, a non-profit which convenes weekly meetings of such groups regularly featuring White House officials, as "the model that we're basing this off."
That group, which POLITICO has learned is considering merging with Organizing for Action, is run by Erik Smith, a Democratic operative who also sits on the board of OfA and Business Forward.
Smith once worked for a pioneering liberal nonprofit group that tried to oust George W. Bush in 2004, took a leave from Common Purpose to work for the Obama campaign, which paid his firm $109,000 for "media consulting," and then served as creative director for the inaugural committee.
Smith, who records show visited Carson and Messina often in the White House, declined to comment.
But he represented Common Purpose at Saturday's Newseum meeting on a panel about "distributed action" activism with other liberal groups, including the Center for American Progress, Media Matters and Democracy Alliance.
The Center for American Progress confirmed it's already working with Organizing for Action, and sources say Media Matters founder David Brock during the panel offered to do the same.
The founder of Business Forward - which sets up meetings with Obama administration officials for leaders of dues-paying businesses which don't trigger lobbying rules - also sat on the panel. But Business Forward has positioned itself as a centrist trade group, despite participating in Common Purpose's weekly liberal group meetings and sponsoring the Road Ahead conference.
Told of the meeting, Fred Wertheimer, head of the money-in-politics watchdog group Democracy 21, expressed concern.
"This is the worst possible way for President Obama to start his second term in office," Wertheimer said. He urged Obama to "immediately" shut down Organizing for Action, calling its creation "an inexplicable action by the president that directly contradicts the message President Obama has been taking to the country for years about the dangerous role played by corporate and special interest money in influencing the way business is done in Washington."
In a nod towards the president's early positioning as a crusader against special interest money in politics, Organizing for Action has said it will not accept money from lobbyists or political action committees, and has indicated it will voluntarily disclose information about its donors, a move in line with Common Purpose's approach. But Organizing for Action has not ruled out accepting corporate donations.
Alan Solow, an Obama bundler and national campaign chair who attended the Newseum meeting and said he intends to donate to the new group, rejected criticism.
"The notion that it's hypocritical for the president to ask for -- or have people on his behalf ask for -- significant contributions is just political nonsense," he said. "If this organization ends up creating more political activism, more people are committed to this country, more people are involved in promoting good government, then it'll be money that will be well invested for the political system as opposed to money that poisons the political system."
And Solow added it makes sense for Obama's allies to approach big donors first. While small donors ultimately will support the group, Solow predicted, he conceded it's easier to raise start-up money from big donors -- and said that's the approach Obama's campaigns followed en route to record-shattering fundraising.
"I think that many of those people will want to be supportive of this type of organization because it's going to continue to enable the president to be effective in implementing the policies that we worked so hard to elect him to undertake," he said.
OfA is also getting fundraising advice from Obama campaign finance director Rufus Gifford, who made his reputation in finance circles as a big-donor fundraiser.
And it can't hurt being associated with fundraising powerhouses like CAP - which also accepts cash from corporations like Walmart - and Media Matters.
Of course, Obama's operation has also set new standards for small-dollar fundraising. Campaign officials told donors at the Newseum that the average donation it received in 2012, when it raised a record-shattering total of $1.1 billion, was $65.89.
And Carson told the big donors at the Newseum that they were only part of the formula.
"From the grassroots volunteers, to every one of you," he said, "we need you in this fight to reduce gun violence. In finally holding Republicans accountable for being climate deniers. In everything from tackling these budget issues to immigration, we are going to put this army to work."
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.