Spending on White House dinners soars under Obama

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Slideshow of photos from the Mexico and India state dinners, which together cost nearly $1.5 million, including costs for massive tents and trolleys to ferry guests. Click the text blurb icon in the lower-left corner of the photos to see full captions. All photos by Pete Souza and Lawrence Jackson/The White House. News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock
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President Obama has spent far more lavishly on White House state dinners than previous chief executives, including nearly $1 million on a 2010 dinner for Mexico's president, according to documents obtained by The Washington Examiner.

Presidents have long used formal dinners to court foreign heads of state and to dish out fine food and wine to reward political, financial and show business celebrities and supporters.

But current and former government officials said the documents obtained by The Examiner point to an unprecedented upsurge in White House spending on such events.

The Obama extravaganza two years ago for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, which included a performance by pop star Beyonce, cost $969,793, or more than $4,700 per attendee, the documents show.

The Calderon dinner was held on the South Lawn in a massive tent adorned with decorated walls, hanging chandeliers, carpeting and a stage for Beyonce's performance.

Guests rode private trolley cars from the White House to the tent. Celebrity guest chef Rick Bayless from Chicago’s Topolobampo restaurant was imported to prepare Oaxacan black mole, black bean tamalon and grilled green beans.

 The dinner for the prime minister of India -- which was famously crashed by Virginia couple Michaele and Tareq Salahi -- cost nearly half a million dollars. Dinners for Chinese President Hu Jintao and British Prime Minister David Cameron were of the same level of extravagance.

A knowledgeable government official who made the documents available to The Examiner said the extravagant spending seemed unfair with so many Americans out of work.

"It just kind of takes your breath away to see the expenditure of money that has occurred since 2009," the official said.

WALTERS

Gary Walters, who ran presidential household operations for 21 years during Democratic and Republican administrations, before retiring in 2007, told The Examiner the costs reflected in the documents were "excessive. They are high."

The chief usher of the White House from the Reagan to George W. Bush presidencies, Walters consulted a former White House colleague and said neither of them could recall entertainment costs anywhere near those revealed in the documents provided to The Examiner.

"The highest [cost] event we could remember was $190,000 to $200,000 range, and that was for a very large dinner outside that was probably somewhere in the vicinity of 500 people with two different tents," Walters said, noting that the event was held under President Clinton.

Data for state dinner costs under Bush were unavailable because he signed an executive order in 2001 that put all presidential documents under seal for five years after a chief executive leaves office.

Spokesmen for the presidential libraries of Clinton and President George H.W. Bush were unable to locate data for dinners held in those years.

State dinner costs are a closely guarded secret, the officials said, because of concern about offending governments whose dignitaries receive less opulent bashes than others.

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

RAFANELLI

The documents also reveal that the Obama White House retained an outside planner for the dinners. Bryan Rafanelli, a Boston-based celebrity event planner who was retained last year, managed former first daughter Chelsea Clinton's 2010 nupitals. His firm's website boasts that he produced "State Dinners hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama."

WALSH

Rafanelli's business partner, Mark Walsh, is deputy chief of the State Department's Office of Protocol, which reimburses the White House executive residence for the events.

An attorney, Walsh worked on the 2008 presidential campaigns of both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to his official online biography.

Under a long-standing agreement, state dinner expenses are sent by the White House to Walsh's office for processing. His name does not appear in any of the documents obtained by the newspaper.

Asked about the propriety of a White House contractor having a business relationship with a federal official in a position such as Walsh, Walters said, "I don't think it looks very good. Does it smell right? No."

Walters said he never used outside event planners because "I believed the White House residence staff could do the job."

A spokesman for Rafanelli declined to make him available for comment.

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's enterprise reporting team and can be reached at rpollock@washingtonexaminer.com

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