(Please note the new information in added in a January 1, 2012 update added to the end of this story.)
In the past 10 days, a barrage of emails from the Obama 2012 camp touting "Dinner with Barack and Michelle" has left me wondering: Is President Obama running a national lottery to raise money for the coming election?
Based on my review of this fundraising campaign "promotion," the answer would be "yes."
The idea is a simple one:
- Obama 2012 asks the people on its substantial mailing list (of which I am one) to donate to the campaign, and each time you give between $3 and $2500, your name is entered into a drawing.
- After Dec. 31, three names will be drawn and those lucky folks (and their guests) will be having dinner with the president and first lady.
Of course there are rules, regulations and hoops to jump through. In fact, there are seven pages of rules and regulations. (Let's not lose sight of the fact that this promotion comes from a political party. Political animals on both sides of aisle have a tendency to create bloated documents filled with extraneous words and concepts.)
One of the first things you notice in 2,000-plus-word "rules" document is that you are not required to spend a penny in order to enter the promotion:
NO PURCHASE, PAYMENT, OR FINANCIAL CONTRIBUTION OF ANY KIND IS NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS PROMOTION.
No purchase necessary? This seemed odd, as every single note received from Obama 2012 this week (and there were emails sent daily since Christmas) mentioned that if you donate today, you will be entered into the promotion.
Here's the line from Michelle Obama's note, sent just yesterday.
Also, when you donate today, you are automatically entered for a chance to be one of three supporters to have dinner with Barack and me.
The first lady was not alone in promoting the "Dinner with Barack" lottery. My inbox was also hit with pleas from:
President Obama - "It's not all that often that Michelle and I get to host a casual meal with friends. That's one of the reasons we're both excited about the upcoming dinner with three supporters and your guests. It's the first one we've ever done like this together, and we'd love to have you and whoever you choose to join us. Chip in $3 or whatever you can today -- and you'll automatically be entered to be one of our dinner guests."
Vice President Joe Biden - His email ended with a P.S. --"Right now, any donation you make automatically enters you for a chance to sit down for dinner with Barack and Michelle. You shouldn't pass that up."
Obama's former "bodyman" and pal Reggie Love - Reggie's email called the promotion a "contest" stating - I kind of love this "Dinner with Barack and Michelle" contest. You all have to do this.
Deputy Campaign Manager Julianna Smoot - (She's written me 11 times -- twice since Dec. 21 -- once to sign a New Year's card, and of course "make a donation."
And a second time, she wrote to entice me to donate by sending the "Seating Chart" for my dinner with Barack.
The idea of sitting down with the president of the United States and his wife, at an intimate dinner with only eight people in attendance is quite attractive. Think of the lifetime of memories and stories you will have.
And then there are the tax consequences.
Just like winning a car from Oprah, this prize is something you will pay to win. Written into the rules is a statement about the tax liability to all winners.
ALL FEDERAL, STATE AND LOCAL TAXES ASSOCIATED WITH THE RECEIPT OR USE OF ANY PRIZE ARE THE SOLE RESPONSIBILITY OF WINNER.
So, you might win a dinner with the first couple, but it's ultimately going to cost you. How much? That all depends on your tax bracket and the value of the prize. The official rules document has put a value on the prize - Approximate retail value of the each entire trip package: $1,600.
That $1600 price tag is based on airfare for two at $600 each, a hotel room for one night -- double occupancy $200 -- and dinner for two, $200. You see, winners will not be visiting the White House for dinner with the Obamas. The event will happen somewhere else in America and all winners will be arranging their own travel and hotel accommodations, and will be credited up to $1,400 for travel and hotel.
One wonders if the IRS would agree on the value placed on this prize? The question might be posed... How much would someone pay for a semi-private dinner with the leader of the free world and his wife? Surely is it more than $1,600.
And should the IRS decide that the value is higher than the price claimed and therefore taxes were not properly paid, additional taxes, plus penalties and interest could be due.
If you are still interested in winning dinner with Barack and Michelle, there are a couple more hurdles that all entrants must get over: Eligibility and the White House background check.
Eligibility - Who can win? PROMOTION OPEN ONLY TO INDIVIDUAL UNITED STATES CITIZENS AND LAWFUL PERMANENT U.S. RESIDENTS WHO ARE LEGAL RESIDENTS OF THE FIFTY (50) UNITED STATES, THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA AND PUERTO RICO, AND OVER THE AGE OF 18 (OR THE AGE OF MAJORITY UNDER APPLICABLE LAW).
Based on that stipulation, Obama's 67-year-old Uncle Onyango Obama would not be allowed to enter or win. (He's also bounced from the promotion because he is a relative.)
The background check: Of course you want the president and his wife to be safe in the company of the winners, so you must pre-qualify them. Checking backgrounds on the millions who send in a $3 donation would be costly and time-consuming. So here is how Obama 2012 is winnowing down the list:
Fifty (50) potential winners will be selected by a random drawing from all eligible entries to be held at Obama for America Headquarters on January 20, 2012. Sponsor may, at its option, conduct a background check on each potential winner. Sponsor reserves the right to disqualify any potential winner from receiving any prize based on such background check if Sponsor determines, in its sole discretion that awarding any prize to such potential winner could result in a safety or security risk to any person or persons or could result in the disruption of any event associated with the Promotion. Sponsor will, in its sole discretion, then select three (3) winners from the list of eligible potential winners on the basis of criteria determined and applied by Sponsor to provide for an appropriate range of views, backgrounds, and interests among the winners selected. Winners will be notified by phone or e-mail by January 31, 2012.
Do you understand it all now?
• You have until midnight tonight to enter the promotion.
• On January 20th, 50 finalists will be selected and backgrounds checked.
• And then three lucky winners will be chosen and notified by phone or e-mail by January 31, 2012
Did you notice that this is not a random drawing? Even when you get past the background checks and down to the final 50, this is not going to based on the luck of the draw, but on the decision of the Obama campaign. The wording inside the last bit of the selection paragraph says it all:
Sponsor will, in its sole discretion, then select three (3) winners from the list of eligible potential winners on the basis of criteria determined and applied by Sponsor to provide for an appropriate range of views, backgrounds, and interests among the winners selected.
You have to wonder what is considered "an appropriate range of views, backgrounds and interests?" No further details are offered to clarify. But one doubts that anyone who is not in lockstep with the campaign would be granted this kind of access.
If you are interested in experiencing a dinner with the president, but doubt that you could pass the White House sniff-test (background check) or would be considered to have the "appropriate views, background and interests," we offer a little video from the last "Dinner with Barack":
Where do you stand on this "promotion?" Is it a lottery or just a clever idea to raise campaign funds?
Before the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, two more solicitations to enter the Dinner Lottery hit my e-mail In box.
At 6:00pm, Julianna Smoot wrote to remind me that I only had six hours left to "throw my name in the hat."
And just after 9pm, a generic email from the campaign announcing - "If you're out celebrating and away from your computer, you should know that we've made it incredibly easy for you -- or anyone you're with -- to make a donation from your mobile device."
(I must admit that the seating chart ignited my imagination and made me consider donating $3. It's like buying a lottery ticket when the jackpot gets to be so large that the amount of money would be life changing. Full disclosure -- despite having already passed a White House background check as recently as June 2009, I resisted the temptation.)