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Cronyism seen in relationship behind White House state dinners

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Photo - President and Mrs. Obama visit with Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom and his wife, Samantha Cameron, during a state dinner reception on the Truman Balcony of the White House in March. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
President and Mrs. Obama visit with Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom and his wife, Samantha Cameron, during a state dinner reception on the Truman Balcony of the White House in March. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
News,Watchdog,Richard Pollock
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When Bryan Rafanelli orchestrated an extravagant White House state dinner hosted by President and First Lady Michelle Obama for British Prime Minister David Cameron last March, the celebrity event planner's business partner, Mark Walsh, was close by.

Walsh is deputy chief of protocol in the U.S. State Department and co-owner of the Boston-based Rafanelli Events Management firm.

The protocol office oversees and pays for all White House events involving foreign dignitaries, including payments to the Rafanelli firm. Walsh was appointed to the highly coveted position in 2011 despite a marked absence of international diplomatic experience on his resume.

The deputy chief of protocol oversees visits of heads of state and top diplomats who meet with the president, vice president or secretary of state.

"This actually looks like good old fashioned cronyism and/or favoritism."
-- Judy Nadler, California-based government ethics expert

Previous chief executives used only government employees to plan White House state dinners.

The Washington Examiner reported Oct. 25, 2012, that state dinner spending has skyrocketed under Obama, including a May 2010 event for Mexico's President Felipe Calderon that cost nearly $1 million, or more than $4,700 per attendee.

Walsh acknowledged a "heightened prospect of a conflict of interest" when he took the post, and he agreed to resign as treasurer of the Rafanelli firm, according to an April, 13, 2011 letter he gave Kathryn Youel Page, the "Alternate Designated Ethics Official" in the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser. (See the letter and Walsh's most recent ethics form in the embedded viewer at the bottom of this story.)

He also promised in the letter to "recuse myself from participation on a case-by-case basis" in activities "in which I determine that a reasonable person ... would question my impartiality in that matter ..."

RAFANELLI

Walsh did not, however, divest his ownership position in Rafanelli Events. He estimated the ownership position was worth up to $1 million, according to his financial disclosure statement. He also reported receiving up to $50,000 in dividends from the firm.

Walsh said nothing in the letter about resigning as a director of the company, a position he has held since 1996 when the two men founded the company.

WALSH

Neither Walsh nor a State Department spokesman returned a reporter's multiple telephone calls seeking comment.

Government ethics experts interviewed by The Washington Examiner pointed to a myriad of potential problems with the Walsh appointment.

"This actually looks like good old-fashioned cronyism and/or favoritism," said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at Santa Clara University where she directs the school's Ethics and the Public's Business program for newly elected officials. She is a former mayor of Santa Clara.

"Cronyism is not what you know, but who you know," she said.

Nadler pointed to Walsh's continuing income from and ownership stake in the firm, saying "the association, the financial connection, the ownership stake, the dividends coming from the event planning company that Mr. Walsh has been participating in are troubling."

"Resigning as treasurer does not take away any of those benefits," she said.

STERN

Similarly, government ethics authority Robert Stern said the Walsh appointment "sounds almost like it was an outright reward. This could be a 'thank you' for all the past help he's made."

Stern is former president of the California-based Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the California public service-ethics law approved in 1974.

Walsh's two immediate predecessors were Lee Satterfield and Ray Martinez, both of whom had extensive qualifications in government service and experience at the White House.

Satterfield had been a special assistant to President Clinton, a presidential scheduler and a scheduler for Vice President Gore.

Martinez had served on White House advance teams in the U.S. and abroad for Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He also had been deputy director for scheduling and advance for First Lady Nancy Reagan. He became deputy chief of protocol in 2005.

Walsh and Rafanelli are Clinton political allies. Walsh served as Hillary Clinton's national outreach director for the gay and lesbian community in her 2008 presidential campaign.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post described the two men as the city's "new power couple."

Rafanelli told Improper Bostonian magazine in October 2011 that "when Hillary went to the State Department, D.C. became a good secondary market." The firm now has offices in Boston and Washington, D.C.

He has contributed $37,650 since 2007 to Clinton, Obama and other Democrats, and hosted an August 2012 fundraising dinner for Vice President Joe Biden.

Walsh contributed $32,976 to Democrats during the same period, including Clinton and Obama.

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

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Mark Walsh's most recent ethics filing
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