Political briefings at 15 agencies could have violated Hatch Act
San Francisco Chronicle/Washington Post
R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post
Thursday, April 26, 2007

(04-26) 04:00 PDT Washington -- White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said Wednesday.

The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.

The existence of one such briefing, at the headquarters of the General Services Administration in January, came to light last month and provoked the Office of Special Counsel to begin an investigation into whether the officials at the briefing felt coerced into steering federal activities to favor those Republican candidates cited as vulnerable.

Such coercion is prohibited under a federal law, known as the Hatch Act, meant to insulate virtually all federal workers from partisan politics. In addition to forbidding workplace pressures meant to influence an election outcome, the law bars the use of federal resources -- including office buildings, phones and computers -- for partisan purposes.

The administration maintains that the previously undisclosed meetings were appropriate. Those describing the briefings on the record Wednesday uniformly depicted them as merely "informational briefings about the political landscape."

But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, who has been investigating the GSA briefing, said: "Politicization of departments and agencies is a serious issue. We need to know more about these and other briefings."

In the GSA briefing -- conducted like all the others by a deputy to chief White House political adviser Karl Rove -- two slides were presented showing 20 House Democrats targeted for defeat and several dozen Republicans that needed protection.

At its completion, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked how GSA projects could be used to help "our candidates," according to a half-dozen witnesses. The briefer, J. Scott Jennings, said that topic should be discussed "off-line," the witnesses said.

Doan then replied, "Oh, good, at least as long as we are going to follow up," according to an account given by former GSA Chief Acquisition Officer Emily Murphy to House investigators, according to a copy of the transcript.

"Something was going to take place potentially afterwards" regarding Doan's request, GSA Deputy Director of Communications Jennifer Millikin told investigators she concluded at the time.

Doan, appearing before the oversight committee on March 28, said, "I believe that all around government, there are noncareer employees who meet to discuss different ways to advance policies and programs of the administration." But, she added, that "is not the same as asking federal employees to engage in partisan political activities in the workplace," a request she said she did not recall making.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said he was not familiar with the details of the briefings for other agencies, but the projected fate of specific candidates was "certainly" discussed. He also said that in addition to the 20 briefings given in 2006-07, "there were others throughout the last six years," making clear that this was a common Bush administration practice during each election cycle.

Among the other agencies that held briefings by White House political officials were the departments of Commerce, Veterans Affairs and Transportation, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Education, Agriculture and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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