Hatch Act lessons lag, study says

January 26, 2011

When the Office of Special Counsel was wrapping up a three-year investigation into allegations of widespread violations of electioneering laws by the Bush administration, it conducted an informal survey of how well the Obama administration was handling such matters.

It found, according to a report released Monday and a spokesman for the counsel's office, that only a single Cabinet-level department under President Obama has adopted reasonable safeguards to ensure that illegal political activities do not occur on government premises, on workers' official time or at government expense.

And even the standards at that department, which the office declined to name, fall short of what is needed, spokesman Darshan Sheth said. Only some of its procedures were cited in the report as a model for a government-wide policy, because they include "certain definitions not in total compliance with the Hatch Act," which bars certain electioneering by federal workers, he said.

The conclusion by the principal Hatch Act watchdog that the Obama administration has not learned the right lessons from Bush-era misconduct was a hidden subtext in the 112-page report issued Monday, three years after many of the allegations against Bush surfaced.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin responded Tuesday that "from the beginning of the administration, agencies have been consulting with OSC to make sure they comply with the Hatch Act." Obama also decided this month to move the White House political office - the institution responsible for abuses during the Bush years - out of Washington and base it in Chicago, the location of his campaign headquarters for 2012.

The special counsel's office, now run on an interim basis by career appointee William E. Reukauf while Obama appointee Carolyn N. Lerner seeks confirmation, did not deeply probe current practices or find any specific evidence of wrongdoing. But it highlighted procedures that only one department put in place as "a good example" to others.

Those procedures include special oversight and approval for appearances by top officials at political events and a requirement that expenses for such appearances must be paid by political sources in advance. It also requires that its general counsel vet such payments once the event has passed to ensure the amounts match up.

The report says that all of these procedures were honored in the breach, so to speak, during the 2006 election cycle. It described frequent politically motivated travel by seven Bush Cabinet secretaries and other top appointees who wrongly said they were acting on official business.

A visit to North Carolina by Dirk Kempthorne, Bush's interior secretary, was typical of many organized by the White House political office that year, the report says. A day before the election, Kempthorne and his aides toured the site of a $5 million visitors center near Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway that was a year from completion.

Kempthorne said the center would bring a billion dollars in new economic activity to the region. Standing beside him was Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), a socially conservative former banker and farmer lagging in the polls behind the Democratic congressional nominee, former Redskin Heath Shuler.

Taylor told reporters at the event that his reelection would enable him to "take the clout that I have" as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee dealing with interior and water resources "and continue to work here for western North Carolina." But, when asked whether the event was campaign-related, he and Kempthorne said it was not, according to news accounts.

Internal department documents depicted the trip as "official business," making the travel costs eligible for payment from Interior's budget.

The counsel's report says the trip idea originated in an e-mail by the head of the White House political office to her own aides. It said that Kempthorne "wants to help Taylor," who was listed as a "Tier 1" priority on the office's list of embattled Republicans.

One of the White House political aides came up with the idea of visiting a mock-up of the visitors center in Taylor's district and worked out the schedule.

The report said that top Interior Department aides knew about those on the list through briefings organized by the political office for all of Bush's appointees at the department, part of a series of 36 held at 20 agencies between April 2005 and February 2007. "Please make a special effort to attend," the department's chief of staff had said in a memo before one such briefing on March 25.

Although White House officials told the counsel's office that such briefings were "informational discussions about the political landscape," many "if not all" were meant to ensure "the electoral success of the Republican Party," and thus constituted illegal political activity on government premises, the counsel said.

"There is no evidence," the report said, "that DOI had any plans for Secretary Kempthorne to travel to North Carolina for a tour" before his offer to help Taylor's reelection.

Taylor lost. Kempthorne, who runs the Washington office of the American Council of Life Insurers, declined a phone call but said through a spokesman that "the Interior Department had a process in place to review the secretary's trips by the top career staff, top career attorney and the department's ethics officer prior to any trip to ensure it was consistent with all ethics laws."

smithj@washpost.com Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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