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White House invoices show excessive state dinner costs

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Politics,News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock

President Obama spent more than $1.45 million on his first two official state dinners, according to White House financial documents obtained by The Washington Examiner.

The White House Executive Residence sent two invoices to the State Department's Office of Protocol, seeking reimbursement for the White House dinners honoring visiting Indian and Mexican heads of state.

Both invoices can be viewed following this news story.

The October 2009 Indian dinner cost $487,168.86 or $1,485 per person, according to the invoices. The May 2010 Mexican dinner price tag was $969,793.92 and was attended by 200 people at a cost of $4,770 each.

The Washington Examiner first reported on Oct. 25, 2012, that White House spending on state dinners has skyrocketed under Obama.

Both invoices are simply titled "Bill for Collection" and seek State Department reimbursement. Costs of White House social events involving foreign dignitaries are covered in the State Department's budget.

The actual costs of the two events was not revealed by White House officials to Congress out of concern for "protocol considerations," according to a 2010 expense report obtained by the Examiner. The White House is required to submit the report annually to Congress.

The invoice address is 7001 Lafayette Avenue in Riverdale, MD, a National Park Service location. Federal contracting records identify Reservation Number One and the address as the financial processing office for the White House Executive Residence. Technically, the White House property falls under Park Service authority.

The Obamas came to Washington seeking to inject sizzle into the nation's capitol. A June 2010 Vanity Fair article gushed the Obama White House would usher in a new era of "stylishness in contrast to the uptight, closed-off dullness of the Bush regime."

ABC News hailed the November 2009 dinner for Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh as the "hottest ticket in town and the most highly anticipated social event of the year."

White House officials had a massive pavilion constructed on the South Lawn that took five days to build. The temporary structure included a fully heated concert hall with adjacent satellite kitchens and a dozen hanging chandeliers to make it seem like "a magical secret garden," reported Vanity Fair.

The Obamas rejected Cristeta Comerford, their regular White House chef and a holdover from the Bush term, preferring to import Marcus Samuelsson, a celebrity chef from New York's trendy Aquavit restaurant.

Vanity Fair estimated that the pavilion cost as much as $250,000. The White House invoice shows the Indian dinner's total cost was $487,000.

In May 2010, White House officials again transformed the South Lawn, this time into an elaborate nightclub to welcome former Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The dinner featured a private concert by pop star Beyonce.

Daily FLOTUS blogger Lynn Sweet reported in a May 20, 2010, post that the portable concert hall was "a giant lavish venue made up to look like a ritzy nightclub with black walls, black carpet, stunning floral decorations and strings of monarch butterfly cutouts."

The Mexican gala was the maiden voyage for Juliana Smoot, who had been selected to succeed disgraced Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. Rogers was let go after a Reality TV couple crashed the Indian dinner.

Neither Rogers nor Smoot had prior diplomatic protocol experience. Smoot was President Obama's 2008 finance director and later became deputy campaign manager in 2012.

Smoot selected celebrity event planner Bryan Rafanelli, who was famous for planning Bill and Hillary Clinton's multi-million dollar "wedding of the decade" for their daughter Chelsea.

Rafanelli pulled out the stops for the Mexican dinner, piling up $969,000 in expenses. The regular White House chef was again replaced, this time with Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayliss.

Former White House Usher Gary Walters told the Examiner that the most expensive White House state dinner he could recall was about $200,000. As usher, Walters was intimately involved in planning the events from 1986 to 2007.

Current White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard has retained Rafanelli. Mark Walsh, Rafanelli's business partner, now serves as the Deputy Chief of the Office of Protocol, which processes payments for the dinners.

On November 1, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Ca, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, demanded that Secretary of State Clinton provide his panel with multiple documents about the White House State Dinner spending.

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

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