published Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

GOP presidential hopefuls met with donors on sly

MADISON, Wis. — Far from public scrutiny, Republican presidential hopefuls, high-powered donors and other national political and business leaders gathered last month at a five-star resort in Georgia for a secretive meeting to discuss the midterm elections, foreign policy and the economy.

Details of the event organized by the think tank the American Enterprise Institute were revealed this week by the Center for Public Integrity, which obtained a copy of the program and other materials.

Attendees during the three-day meeting in early March at The Cloister in Sea Island, Ga., reportedly included such potential 2016 presidential hopefuls as Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Others listed on the program: former Vice President Dick Cheney; former CIA Director David Petraeus; major Republican donor and former Amway President Dick DeVos; TD Ameritrade founder Joe Rickets; GOP strategist Karl Rove; Apple CEO Tim Cook; and Scott Carpenter, the deputy director of Google Ideas.

Three Republicans -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels -- were slated to lead a discussion titled "How to Fix the States."

Judy Mayka Stecker, a spokeswoman for the American Enterprise Institute, declined to answer specific questions about the "World Forum" gathering, which AEI has hosted annually since 1982. She described the meeting as "an informal gathering of leading thinkers from all ideological backgrounds to discuss challenges facing our world in economics, security and social welfare."

In an email, Stecker said: "To maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse, the event is private and off the record, therefore we do not comment further on the content or attendees."

The Center for Public Integrity reviewed travel documents filed with Congress and determined that 18 members of Congress attended the event, all but two of them Republicans. The only Democratic members of Congress there, according to the event program, were Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Some former and current Obama administration officials were also present. They included National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, who was on several panel discussions including one about the global economy and another national health policy.

Two potential 2016 presidential candidates -- Walker and Ryan -- both were interviewed at a breakfast event.

"Congressman Ryan thought it was important to hear from leading scholars, thinkers and lawmakers about the public policy issues facing our nation," his spokesman Kevin Seifert said Wednesday. "The AEI World Forum provided a good opportunity to do that."

Walker's spokesman would only confirm that he attended the meeting.

Tea party Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin also attended and participated in a panel discussion on "the politics of health care, inequality, jobs and dissatisfaction." His spokeswoman, Melinda Whitemarsh Schnell, said he felt it was important to attend "to have these kinds of frank conversations and meaningful discussions among leaders from the business, political, financial world."

A report on the meeting first appeared in The Huffington Post.

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