Military and civilian employees at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque received an unusual e-mail inviting them to attend an Aug. 26 campaign rally for President Bush.
"The White House has extended an invitation to TEAM KIRTLAND to attend President Bush's speech downtown at the Convention Center," read the message, sent by Deborah Mercurio, the director of public affairs for the 377th Air Base Wing. "Doors open at 12:00 p.m. and no one is to arrive later than 2:00 p.m. For those interested, please stop by the Wing PA office for tickets."
To Mercurio, the e-mail, which cautioned military personnel not to wear their uniforms or represent themselves as attending in their official military capacity, amounted to nothing more than a nice gesture by the White House to provide the base's workers with a chance to see their commander in chief.
To federal employee unions, it represented the latest attempt by the Bush administration and its supporters to transform what is supposed to be a politically neutral federal bureaucracy into an arm of the president's reelection campaign. Bush spent the day touting his record in three cities across the battleground state, which he lost by 366 votes four years ago.
"They basically rounded up the people and told the military, 'Don't wear your uniforms and get over to the convention center and root for the president,' " said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. The "party, the administration, whoever, just seems to be using our military and our civil service as a prop for campaign events."
Gage and other union leaders are keeping track of such incidents. They say government officials have used agency computers to e-mail federal workers memos highlighting presidential accomplishments and posted politically charged language on a Cabinet department's Web site.
At the same time, federal bosses have tried to restrict their employees from volunteering on their own time for Democratic nominee John F. Kerry and issued guidelines on campaigning on federal property that favor Bush, the administration's critics say.
"It seems like there's not really a level playing field here," said J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for AFGE, which represents about 600,000 federal workers and has endorsed Kerry for president.
Mercurio said she does not understand what all the fuss is about. Base officials did not encourage attendance at the Bush rally, and the e-mail pointed out that on-duty personnel would have to take leave to go.
"It was to see their commander in chief and not at all the politician," she said. "I don't even know for sure who I'm going to vote for, so it's not like I was campaigning for him or anything."
But when Michelle Sandoval, president of AFGE Local 2263, later asked base officials to give employees the same opportunity to attend a Kerry speech Sept. 16 in Albuquerque, she was turned down.
Col. Hank Andrews, commander of the 377th Air Base Wing, said in an e-mail to Sandoval that after complaints were filed about the Aug. 26 e-mail, "the Commander of AFMC [Air Force Materiel Command] subsequently felt it was important to emphasize that we should exercise caution regarding these events. . . . In light of all of this information, I must decline your request."
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy dismissed as unfounded the union's allegations that officials have trampled the spirit -- and at times the letter -- of the Hatch Act, a decades-old law that restricts partisan political activities in the federal workplace.
"This White House and this administration adheres to the highest ethical standards and the rules and regulations put in place by the Hatch Act," Healy said. The complaints go beyond mere grumbling about the natural political advantages enjoyed by an incumbent president who can command daily media attention, crisscross the country in Air Force One and mix his official duties and political events. Some of the incidents appear to be clear violations of the Hatch Act, union officials said.