David Plouffe, an aide to President Barack Obama, accepted a $100,000 fee from an affiliate of a firm doing business with Iran, The Washington Post reported.
Plouffe, who also was Obama's 2008 campaign manager, accepted the fee from a subsidiary of MTN Group, a South Africa-based telecommunications company, for two speeches he gave in Nigeria in December 2010, about a month before he joined the White House staff, the Post reported Sunday.
Since his speeches, MTN Group has been scrutinized by U.S. authorities because of its activities in Iran and Syria, both under international sanctions. When Plouffe's speeches were given, MTN had been in a partnership with a state-owned Iranian telecommunications firm.
While Plouffe, as a private citizen, did nothing ethically or legally wrong, the fact that an aide to Obama accepted payment from a company involved in Iran could prove problematic for the president as the White House toughens its stance toward Iran, the Post said. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has accused the administration of being soft on Iran in recent campaign speeches.
The White House declined to make Plouffe available to the Post for an interview. White House spokesman Eric Schultz said passing judgment on Plouffe was unfair because MTN Group's role in Iran was not a major issue when he was invited to speak to the affiliate.
"He gave two speeches on mobile technology and digital communications and had no separate meetings with the company's leadership," Schultz said in a statement to the Post. "At the time, not even the most zealous watchdog group on this issue had targeted the Iranian business interests of the host's holding company. Criticism of Mr. Plouffe now for issues and controversies that developed only years later is simply misplaced."
In e-mails to the Post, White House officials said Plouffe consulted his attorney before accepting the invitation and that the lawyer advised that MTN's business dealings did not raise issues "that would weigh against acceptance of the proposed speaking engagement."
White House officials also noted that senior officials in President George W. Bush's administration had been paid for speeches by companies doing business in Iran.
MTN denied violating any sanctions and had sought Plouffe's participation "because of his expertise and his knowledge of the U.S. political scene. ... It had no connection or relevance to Iran."