WASHINGTON — Whenever President Obama travels, around a half-dozen well-connected volunteers are there to greet his motorcade.
The volunteers round out the president's "advance team," or the people who ensure that the president's entourage — staffers, reporters, guests, etc. — is in the right place at the right time.
These volunteers also get free air travel, free hotel rooms, and free meals on the taxpayer's dime. The White House doesn't advertise it, but the plum gig is open to anyone with the right connections.
"The initial pool of people come from the campaign and then generally it's a word-of-mouth thing," a person familiar with the operations of the White House advance office told BuzzFeed News. "People who volunteer in another capacity at an event end up getting it a lot, or it's just, 'I'm friends with somebody and they're available and they want to try it out.'"
"You have to meet somebody," the source said. "You'd either have to meet somebody or it fell in your lap, like they came to your college. There's not outreach for it."
On Thursday, the little-known White House advance team volunteer program made headlines after the Washington Post reported one of the volunteers who staffed a presidential trip to Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012 may have brought a prostitute back to his room at the local Hilton. The volunteer, Jonathan Dach, is the son of a wealthy lobbyist who donated tens of thousands to Obama's presidential campaigns. He's now a staffer at the State Department's Office on Global Women's Issues.
The broad strokes of the allegations had been reported before, but the Post story featured more details of Dach's alleged actions in Cartagena. It also shed new light on the volunteer program.
The White House advance office is very small, as government offices go. The paid staff numbers in the single digits. So on most trips, only two actual paid members of the staff go along on a paid trip — the "travel lead" and a "press lead," who deals with reporters.
The rest of the team is made up of volunteers, usually between five to seven people. They are either veteran volunteers who've advanced other presidential or Obama campaign trips, or they're newbies, recommended to the advance staff by a member of the administration. The volunteers do various wrangling jobs, including moving crowds through events, making sure people get to their assigned seats in motorcades, and otherwise ensuring a smooth flow from place to place.
The advance staffers are very different from the paid Secret Service agents and military officials who also "advance" the president, making determinations about routes and security. But to the security detail, the volunteers are indistinguishable from the rest of the White House staff.
"Secret Service or the White House military office wouldn't be able to look at an advance team and say, 'That's the staffer, that's the volunteer,'" the source said. "It does mesh. You would think it's a paid team, it's not like a Bad News Bears situation."
As the Dach story illustrates, the volunteer team holds potential headaches for the White House. Volunteers are told to remember who and what they're representing when their working for Obama the ground, but they're not watched liked hawks.
"I think because the people work together so much, it's not like we're babysitting volunteers," the source said. "The volunteers work full-time and act like paid staff."
The volunteer advance team program pre-dated the Obama White House, and a top White House aide did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News Thursday about whether the program will be put under review following the Post's story on Dach.
For now at least, the program remains one of the best kept secrets in the United States. If you know the right person who knows the right person, you can see the world with Obama as your travel agent.
A former volunteer travel aide for the Obama White House emailed to take issue with the source's claim that Secret Service can't tell volunteers from paid staff. The source was referring to how closely volunteers and the paid staff work together, but the former volunteer noted that volunteers and paid staff are divided by badging.
"Actual White House advance staff would be hard pinned by secret service while temp or volunteers would have soft pins or lanyard credentials," the former volunteer said. "To most people, crowd, etc that would definitely be true [that volunteers and paid staff would be indistinguishable], just not to Secret Service."