Sam Palmisano is undoubtedly a technology expert. As CEO of IBM (IBM) from 2003 to 2011, he presided over a tech giant during the formative years of the digital revolution. That makes him a logical choice to be vice chairman of a new White House panel on cybersecurity, an appointment President Obama announced this week.
Palmisano is also a Republican who gave $100,000 last March to Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise. That puts him in the rarified stratum of people making six-, seven- or eight-figure donations to help a chosen candidate win. Palmisano is hardly the biggest spender in the 2016 race. At least 110 people have made larger donations to the Bush super PAC, the biggest being a $10 million offering from former AIG chairman Hank Greenberg. But the $100,000 gift still makes Palmisano a megadonor operating inside a system many critics feel is corrupting democracy.
“To someone outside of Washington, this might seem odd,” says Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, which monitors campaign-finance issues. “But here in Washington, it’s really not surprising at all.”
Nor is it unusual for a president to establish a bipartisan commission or study group, which tends to have more credibility than a single-party panel more likely to push an ideological agenda. The chairman of the cybersecurity panel will be Tom Donilon, a longtime Obama aide and former National Security Adviser. Donilon and Palmisano will help recruit another 10 panel members of both parties, whose job will be to produce a report by Dec. 1 on ways to improve Internet security and lure more talented people into the field.
The White House maintains that choosing Palmisano shows Obama is putting substance over politics. “Cybersecurity is a non-partisan issue,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Jen Friedman told Yahoo Finance. “Maintaining public safety, and our economic and national security, transcends politics."
Before donating to Bush’s super PAC, Palmisano was an occasional political contributor who gave a total of $26,600 to a handful of politicians, of both parties, beginning in 1998, according to Federal Election Commission data. Last year, he gave $2,700 to Jeb Bush's campaign committee (which is seperate from the super PAC) and $5,400 to Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. On the Democratic side, Palmisano gave $3,000 to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York in 2002 and 2003, and $1,000 to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2004. Palmisano didn’t respond to a request for comment, but his giving pattern prior to the Right to Rise donation suggests the pragmatic concerns of a businessman putting a few bucks in the pots of key legislators as a token of support.
The $100,000 donation to Right to Rise was Palmisano’s first dalliance with a super PAC, a newer type of funding mechanism that may be the most significant innovation in American politics in decades. Unlike traditional political-action groups or campaign committees, super PACs can accept unlimited donations to spend as they wish either supporting favored candidates or opposing rivals. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision basically eliminated caps on political donations, and super PACs have proliferated ever since.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.