Money talks at Obama's inauguration

As hundreds of thousands of Americans crowd the National Mall for President Barack Obama's second inauguration on January 21, the best seats will already be filled -- sold for a hefty price.

Obama limited individual donations to $50,000 for his first inaugural in 2009, and banned corporate donors as he sought to distance himself from special interests amid the historic swearing-in of the country's first black president.

His reticence over money did little to stop the flow of cash, however, and the new US leader racked up a record $53 million in private donations, much of it coming from the 1.8 million people who packed Washington for the event.

This second time around, such lofty intentions -- and Obama's pledge to have the most transparent US administration ever -- appear to have been shelved in advance, with companies invited to join in -- and fund -- the proceedings.

For the White House is throwing open the gates of largesse for supporters to contribute as much as $1 million for special access. The money could buy much more than a coveted seat near the president as he takes the oath of office.

"This is an avenue for special interests, especially wealthy corporations, to get their last chance to throw money at the feet of the president," Craig Holman, an expert on campaign finance reform, told AFP.

"The real intent is for the corporations to buy access and influence with the White House," added Holman, from consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

In this year's invitations, copies of which were posted online by the Sunlight Foundation, an accountability group, the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) formalized four different donation levels -- each with a name of one of the nation's founding fathers.

For $10,000 from individuals and $100,000 from business entities, "Madison" benefactors receive an invitation to a finance committee "road ahead" meeting, two tickets to a candlelight celebration on the eve of the inauguration, and a pair of tickets to the inaugural ball.

"Washington" contributors -- individuals who pay $250,000 and corporations that shell out $1 million -- gain "premium partner access" that also includes attendance at VIP receptions, seats for the inaugural parade, four ball tickets and passes to a concert with Stevie Wonder and Katy Perry.

Just who exactly will be buying in to such events, and how much will they be paying? Right now, it is a mystery.

In 2009, donors and their offerings were published on the Internet, but this year only the names are being disclosed in the short term. The amounts given will be published within 90 days of the inauguration.

A PIC spokesman said the lavish perks were offered to donors to get them to open their wallets one more time to help fund the inaugural festivities, after many of them contributed to the most expensive political race in US history.

The 2012 presidential campaign exceeded $2 billion, partly due to a Supreme Court case that lifted a cap on independent political spending by corporations.

Ironically, inauguration day will coincide with the second anniversary of the landmark Citizens United ruling, but funding fatigue may be setting in with the inaugural committee reportedly struggling to meet its $50 million target.

Private donations cover the party element of the inauguration, while taxpayers foot the bill for security.

According to a congressional report, more than 30,000 police were mobilized for the record inaugural crowd that jammed Washington's National Mall in 2009.

Authorities expect fewer people this year but security remains paramount -- dozens of streets will be closed to traffic and metal detectors will be used to scan the thousands ticketed guests.

The exact number of VIP donors is unknown, but a Department of Homeland Security report indicated that four years ago at least 750 were transported to the west front of the Capitol, where seats were reserved near the podium.

One donor perk that the Washington Post identified as a security breach in 2009 and will likely not be repeated this time around: some VIPs arranged to have their photo taken near the presidential limousine.

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