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Celebs, Lobbyists Among First White House Guests

WASHINGTON - Celebrities Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Denzel Washington, prominent Democratic fundraisers and heavyweights from the financial services and high-tech industries were among those landing visits with President Barack Obama or others at the White House during Obama's first months in office.

The White House late Friday afternoon released a partial list of people who have visited since Obama took office in January. It released roughly 480 records in response to questions about whether specific people visited. The White House plans to start disclosing comprehensive visitor lists in coming months.

The visits included in the records released Friday include roughly six dozen with Obama.

Among the guests:

_ Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The wealthy philanthropist had a March 25 meeting with Obama in the Oval Office. The subject isn't disclosed. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives about $200 million a year in elementary and secondary education grants and is pressing for some of the same changes that Obama wants, such as paying teachers based on student test scores.

_ Labor leader and Obama supporter Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. Twenty-two Stern visits to the White House are reflected in the records, including at least seven with Obama. Most of the visits with Obama were for group events; the subjects of most of his visits to other people weren't disclosed.

_ Ed Yingling, the chief executive of the American Bankers Association and a registered lobbyist. Yingling attended at least four meetings with Obama, including one the president held with bank CEOs and discussions on credit cards and housing.

_ Camden Fine, chief executive of the Independent Community Bankers of America and a Washington lobbyist for the group. Fine went to the White House for a March 16 announcement on a small business loan program and the May 20 meeting on housing.

_ Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist, lobbyist and former House staffer. Elmendorf, whose lobbying clients include Ford Motor Co., UnitedHealth Group and Verizon, attended a June 29 Obama reception and had at least four meetings with others at the White House complex.

Lobbyists and Democratic fundraisers Anthony and Heather Podesta made several visits, all to Obama aides. Anthony Podesta, whose brother, John, headed Obama's transition team, visited the White House complex at least five times, all on behalf of lobbying clients.

"I think they take meetings that are worth taking," Anthony Podesta said in a phone interview Friday night, when asked whether his fundraising and his brother's ties to Obama helped land the meetings. "The small number of meetings that I've been to at the White House — I go to the White House every other month on the average — have been on issues that the White House cared about. Not because the White House cared about me."

"I understand that you could interpret it otherwise," he added. "I believe that all these meetings were entirely on the merits of interest on the part of people in the White House in learning and understanding issues that the White House cared about."

Podesta said the first meeting, one in February at the Old Executive Office Building, was to present a report by Securing America's Future Energy, a group lobbying the government to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Podesta said that neither SAFE nor his lobbying clients at a May meeting asked for any action. The May meeting at the White House with Obama aide Pete Rouse and Podesta clients Cessna and NetJets focused on a severe drop in small-plane sales, he said.

Podesta said he didn't consider the meeting lobbying because there was no "ask."

"We weren't saying, `Please give us money' or 'Please set up a special program for us,'" Podesta said. "We were just letting the administration know there was this difficult situation in the small-jet manufacturing market."

Podesta does consider two other sit-downs — both for client Sallie Mae with Obama education adviser Robert Gordon — lobbying. Podesta said he and Sallie Mae urged the administration to let multiple firms handle student loan originations rather than one company, Accenture. The administration didn't do that, "so it was a failed lobbying," he said.

Podesta said he didn't recall having the other meeting, one with Obama economic adviser Jason Furman at the White House in March.

Podesta's wife, Heather, made at least three visits, all to Obama aides at the Old Executive Office Building in the White House complex, the records show. The subjects weren't disclosed.

Visitors to first lady Michelle Obama and others at the White House also appear in the records.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned for Obama, interviewed the first lady Feb. 17 and was on the guest list for an Inauguration Day reception Jan. 20.

Actor George Clooney met with Vice President Joe Biden on Feb. 23. Actor Denzel Washington is on the visitor list for group White House tours May 7 and 9.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer visited Obama economic adviser Larry Summers at the White House in June, toured the West Wing in April and met with Obama technology adviser John Holdren in May, the records show.