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How taxpayers will end up paying for Obama's West Coast fundraising jaunt

JUNE 20, 2015 | 5:00 AM

At first, President Obama's West Coast visit this week appeared to be purely devoted to fundraising in Hollywood and San Francisco on behalf of other Democrats, and a recreational weekend golf retreat to a Palm Springs desert resort.

But a week ago, the White House sandwiched a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in San Francisco in between the fundraisers on Thursday and Friday nights, allowing Obama to label at least part of the trip as official business and have taxpayers foot a much greater share of the bill.

It's a time-worn billing trick by modern-day presidents, who can rely on Air Force One and other military aircraft at their disposal for official business while federal election laws require party campaign committees to reimburse the White House and ultimately the U.S. Treasury for political travel — albeit at a fraction of the actual costs.

When the president travels strictly for fundraising purposes, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are forced to pay the equivalent of a commercial airline ticket for himself and each of his aides traveling with him.

Yet, like most of his recent predecessors, Obama has tended to sandwich at least one official event into a fundraising trip, like he did this week, and figuring out the formula for what the party committees must pay under this scenario is opaque, confounding even the most seasoned federal election law experts.

Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of "The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign," said he's been trying to figure out the formula for those costs for years to no avail.

"Press secretaries for every recent administration say we carefully follow the laws and carefully reimburse them for this fundraising travel but they never say how much the beneficiaries of the fundraising have to pay — it's remarkable," he said.

Brett Kappel, a well-known Washington expert on election law, has described the party committee reimbursement formula as so shrouded in secret that it's a "total mystery — it's a black box."

True to form, when the Washington Examinerasked the Democratic National Committee for the formula and how much they were planning to pay for the multi-million dollar three-day fundraising and golf hopscotch through California, a party committee spokesman said only that everything was accounted for and legitimate.

"The DNC reimburses for political travel as dictated by relevant federal rules and regulations, as in previous administrations," said DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman.

But Shulman didn't respond to multiple follow-up questions asking to define the formula the committee uses and the price-tag for this week's trip.

Despite Obama's pledge to run the most transparent administration in history, the White House also did not respond to repeated questions about the costs and reimbursements.

A search of the Democratic National Committee's campaign finance records so far this year shows $177,860 in disbursements to the White House Airlift Operations, the office in charge of Air Force One travel. The numbers don't provide any reference point for how much they reimbursed for each presidential trip.

As of Friday night, Obama has done 16 fundraisers on behalf of both the DNC and the DCCC this year, tracking closely with President George W. Bush, who had headlined 13 fundraisers at the same point in the same year of his presidency.

Few estimates exist for flying the president, his aides, extensive advance teams, as well as Secret Service agents, vehicles and military and civilian personnel required, but it's clear it isn't cheap.

The Air Force estimates the cost of operating Air Force One, a modified Boeing 747, at $228,000 an hour, making each leg of an approximately four-hour California trip approximately $1.14 million alone, not counting hotel and other travel expenses. Those numbers alone show that the DNC's reimbursement of less than $200,000 is likely to be just a drop in the bucket compared to what has been spent.

A 2007 Congressional Research Service report recognized the secrecy surrounding the cost of presidential political travel and their reimbursements.

"The travel policies of specific administrations concerning the reimbursement of expenses for unofficial travel generally are not publicly available," the report said.