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Networks failed to identify conservative commentator as a government employee
Washington Post
By Al Kamen
Conflict of Interest or Legitimate Punditry? You Decide
August 14, 2006

A Loop Fan writes: "Please explain to your readers how a government official who is paid by hard-earned taxpayer dollars is allowed to moonlight as a Republican mouthpiece on television."

The anonymous inquiry included a photo of Labor Department deputy assistant secretary Karen Czarnecki appearing on Fox News as a "conservative strategist." She's also a regular "conservative analyst" on the PBS show "To the Contrary" and, according to her department biography, has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, Canadian Public Broadcasting and C-SPAN.

So how does Czarnecki, who has worked in the Reagan and Bush I administrations and at the Heritage Foundation, do it? Easy. We're told it's quite possible to hold forth on "intelligent design," the meaning of the latest election returns and most any political issue without running afoul of ethics regulations or the Hatch Act's provisions on politics and government employees.

The ethics laws restrict income that certain political appointees can earn on the side, and the Hatch Act bars political activity while on duty or in a federal building, or using your official title or position.

But, best we can tell, Czarnecki, whose government salary is probably about $140,000 a year, is always identified as a "conservative" -- not even a Republican -- strategist (on Fox) or "conservative analyst" (on PBS) and apparently never as a federal bureaucrat.

Her punditry is not sanctioned by the department, and her appearances aren't booked by Labor. "Ms. Czarnecki involves herself as an active citizen on her own time engaging in activities that any citizen engages in," a Labor Department spokesman said. "It's no different than a person on the street doing a TV interview on Election Day."

Her television role was cleared by career ethics staff at the department. She apparently files leave papers, even if for a couple hours, before heading off to the studios. The quick appearances are supposed to be freebies, but we understand the regular PBS gig does supplement her government pay.

So that's our explanation for inquiring readers. Just remember to check with agency ethics folks before you do anything.

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