House panel wants answers on costly White House dinners

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News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa today demanded that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turn over documents concerning what he called "excessively lavish" spending for official White House state dinners.

Issa also released a video titled "All the President's Parties" comparing President Obama's promises to cut wasteful federal spending with examples of extravagance drawn from the dinners for foreign dignitaries.

"During these tough economic times, Americans are reining in their spending wherever possible. The executive branch should be mindful of this."
-- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

"During these tough economic times, Americans are reining in their spending wherever possible," Issa said in the Nov. 1 letter to Clinton, citing recent reporting by The Washington Examiner. "The executive branch should be mindful of this. Reports of excessively lavish events, however, indicate the opposite." (See the complete letter in the embedded viewer beneath this story.)

The Examiner reported on Oct. 26 that a May 2010 Obama state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón cost nearly $1 million, or $4,700 per attendee. Three other Obama state dinners since 2009 cost half a million or more, according to official documents cited by the newspaper.

A special concert stage was erected in a massive walled tent on the South Lawn where singer Beyoncé entertained guests for the Calderon dinner. Private trolleys ferried guests from the White House to the tent, and a celebrity chef was brought in from Chicago to prepare a special menu for the event.


CLINTON

Such spending "creates the appearance that the White House and State Department are not planning and executing state dinners responsibly," Issa said in the letter.

The House panel began investigating wasteful federal spending earlier this year when it was learned that General Services Administration employees partied for five days at a Las Vegas conference that cost $823,000.

Issa also questioned the role of celebrity event planner Bryan Rafanelli, whose Boston-based firm, Rafanelli Events Management, was retained by the Obama administration for the Calderon and other official dinners.


WALSH

Issa described what he termed "an improper relationship" between Rafanelli and Mark Walsh, the U.S. State Department's deputy chief of protocol. The Office of Protocol works with the White House to plan state dinners and processes payments connected to the events.

The use of outside event planners appeared to be a "departure from the practice of previous administrations, which relied on in-house planners for state dinners," Issa told Clinton.

Issa asked Clinton for itemized costs connected with the last six official state dinners, including contracts and payments to event planners, entertainers and chefs.

He also requested copies of all communication between the White House and State Department staff concerning the dinners and of department guidelines for planning the events.

Earlier this year, Issa sent a similar request to Clinton concerning an overnight conference attended by State Department employees. Clinton has not yet responded to the April inquiry.

In the video released today by the House panel, Obama is seen during a May 2009 speech in which he said "all across this country Americans are responding to difficult times by tightening their belt. The question the American people is asking is whether Washington is prepared to act with the same sense of responsibility."


President Obama, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Colin Powell chat with India's First Lady, Gursharan Kaur, at the India state dinner in 2009. White House photo by Pete Souza. Click on photo to enlarge.

A photo is then displayed of Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the India dinner, along with a chart showing costs and a voice-over asks "is this responsible spending?"

At another point in the video, Obama is seen addressing a dinner and saying "we've got men in tuxes, women in gowns, fine wine, first-class entertainment. I'm just relieved to learn this was not a GSA conference."

Then, as the infamous photo of a GSA official drinking red wine in a Las Vegas hotel bathtub appears, the video's voice-over says spending on the state dinners "was worse than GSA."

Richard Pollock is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. Contact him at rpollock@washingtonexaminer.com.

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