A report by a federal watchdog agency finding that officials in the administration of George W. Bush systematically broke a law against improper political activity in 2006 might intensify questions about the current administration’s dispatching of officials to aid endangered Democrats in the last cycle.
The Office of Special Counsel, a small agency charged with enforcing workplace rules in the federal government, issued a report Monday concluding that officials in the White House Office of Political Affairs and in 10 federal agencies violated the Hatch Act, which bars improper political activity by federal officials, in coordinated efforts to aid Republican House, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates in the runup to the 2006 midterm elections.
The report concludes that travel by many agency heads to appear with embattled House and Senate candidates in 2006 at the express request of the Office of Political Affairs violated the Hatch Act.
Agencies classified many of those trips as “official business” and paid for them with Treasury funds if they “reasonably related” to official work or did not involve express advocacy for a candidate. But OSC concluded that if the event’s main goal was “the success or failure of a political party, partisan candidate, or partisan group,” it should have been classified as political and paid for by a campaign committee.
A slew of federal agency heads, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, traveled extensively in 2009 and 2010 to make appearances with embattled Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. It could not be immediately determined how the agencies paid for those trips. OSC did not examine agency head travel under President Obama.
But when asked if the report calls travel by Obama administration officials into question, OSC spokesman Darshan Sheth said the agency is focused on ensuring future compliance.
“Our report was issued on Friday,” Sheth said. “It is our most comprehensive statement on these issues to date. Thus, going forward, we expect that all parties will comply with our recommendations as set forth in the report.”
But the report could provide fodder for an investigation by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who began inquiries about campaign-related travel by agency heads last year.
“That is an issue we’re looking at,” committee spokesman Frederick Hill said.
Issa’s probe resembles one by former Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., which covered much of the same ground as the OSC report. That probe resulted in several embarrassing hearings for the Bush administration and helped provoke the forced resignation of the head of the General Services Administration.
Issa sent inquiries to all federal agencies asking about political activity, including travel by top officials to events where they appeared with federal candidates, according to agency officials and House aides.
The OSC report follows by just days the White House’s announcement that it will eliminate the Office of Political Affairs and send its employees to the Democratic National Committee and Obama reelection campaign.
The report concludes that the Office of Political Affairs, created by President Jimmy Carter to offer political advice on policy plans, “became a partisan political organization,” where the entire staff “was enlisted in pursuit of Republican success at the polls and many OPA employees believed that effort was part of their official job duties.”
The report says that the majority of OPA employees did not realize that, as federal employees, they were barred from more than “incidental” political activity while on the job.
“The political activities of OPA employees were not incidental to their official functions, and thus U.S. Treasury funds were unlawfully used to finance efforts to pursue Republican victories at the polls in 2006,” the report says.
The report focused on the Bush White House, but said past administrations engaged in similar actions.
Sheth also said the agency is not seeking any punishment of officials it concludes violated the Hatch Act because “those people are gone. They are no longer employed by the government.”
In a bizarre twist, Scott Bloch, the former head of OSC, is scheduled to be sentenced today on charges of criminal contempt of Congress in federal district court in Washington.
This article appears in the January 25, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.