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Obama Foundation boosts spending on staff, cuts back fundraising

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle | AP file photo

WASHINGTON — The Barack Obama Foundation boosted spending in 2015 for staff and consultants helping the president and first lady Michelle create the Obama Center in Chicago and shape their post-presidential lives, according to an IRS report released on Friday.

In its second year of operation, the foundation dramatically cut back on fundraising, holding off pressing major donors until the Obamas leave office next January.

The foundation raised $1,916,247 in 2015, compared to $5,434,877 in 2014, according to an IRS report the nonprofit, tax-exempt foundation released on Friday.

Total expenses jumped to $2,820,908 in 2015 from $1,952,254 in 2014, according to information on the IRS form foundations are required to file each year.

The foundation reported no highly paid employees in 2014, with the picture changing in 2015.

The IRS requires disclosure of top earners and in 2015 they were foundation executive director Robbin Cohen, $244,838; Justin Rosenthal, strategy and operations manager, $131,596; Jamison Citron, external affairs manager, $137,500, and Jonabel Russette, the accounting and administration director, $121,239.

The main public activity of the foundation in 2015 was overseeing the competitions to select the city to be the home of the Obama Center and the architect who would design the structure, to be located in Jackson Park or Washington Park.

The Obamas picked Chicago’s South Side for their center on May 12, 2015, and put seven architects on their short list last Dec. 21, with a decision expected in the coming weeks.

Less visible in 2015 was the foundation planning work being done to help the Obamas develop the role, programs and missions for their center and their own futures.

An Obama Foundation official confirmed for the Chicago Sun-Times that the $500,000 listed as “program services” in the IRS report represented a total amount owed to McKinsey & Company, the management consultant company, for consultants, travel, research and related expenses.

The Obama account is handled by Lynn Taliento, who leads McKinsey’s Social Sector Practice and is deeply involved in helping shape the Obama long-term post-White House strategy.

Other top fees were $296,759 to the law firm Katten, Muchin, Rosenman for legal services; $272,879 to Blue State Digital in New York for digital marketing services; $182,865 to SKDKnickerbocker, the Washington company handling communication and marketing; and $150,000 to Peter Edward Arendt in Fort Worth, Texas, for real estate consulting services.

While the foundation has been disclosing the names of donors — and the broad ranges of the contributions — the IRS form provides the specific amounts. As in 2014, in 2015 a relatively small donor group is providing the Obama Foundation seed money:

  • The Colorado Gill Foundation contributed $347,000. In 2014, Scott Miller and Tim Gill, the founder of Quark Inc., gave the foundation $432,876.
  • ImpactAssets Inc., based in Maryland, gave $250,000. In 2014, Ian Simmons, who leads the Impact Assets Donor Advised Fund, gave $500,000. Simmons’ wife is former Chicagoan Liesel Pritzker Simmons, of the Pritzker clan.
  • Sacks Family Foundation donated $333,334. In 2014, Cari and Michael Sacks donated $666,666. Sacks, who lives in Chicago and Highland Park, joined the Obama Foundation board in April. Sacks is chairman and CEO of GCM Grosvenor and an investor in the company that owns the Sun-Times.
  • Lise Strickler and Mark Gallogly, the managing partner of Centerbridge Partners, gave $330,000. In 2014, the New York couple donated $340,000.
  • Marilyn and Jim Simons, the founder of Renaissance Technologies Corp. donated $330,000. In 2014, the New York couple gave $340,000.
  • Beth and David Shaw, a hedge fund manager, contributed $250,000. In 2014, the New York couple also gave $250,000.