Conflict of Interest or Legitimate Punditry? You Decide.

By Al Kamen
Monday, 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.

Bipartisan Multiculturalism

This just in from Beijing: The hearty delegation of visiting senators wrapped up its journey to the Middle Kingdom last week after chatting with Chinese premier Hu Jintao and spending the week meeting with Chinese legislators.

Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), along with spouses, aides and military escorts, reportedly had a fine time. Others on the trip reportedly included Republican Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), and Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Mark Dayton (Minn.).

The inter-parliamentary activities are often justified as a way for senators to better understand China and to guide future legislation. This one will surely pay off, except in Dayton's case. He's scheduled to have only another 15 working days in the Senate before retiring.

Meanwhile, United Press International reports that more than 20 delegations with more than 100 senators and House members paid official visits to China. Some should be fluent in Mandarin soon.

'Get Well Soon' Letter for Castro

And now, the winner of the Loop Savvy Pol of the Month Award: It's Mohamed Abdelaziz , president of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, who won this one going away.

Abdelaziz, who heads the Polisario Front fighting to secede from Morocco, has shored up his ties with, yes, Cuba's Fidel Castro , writing a heartfelt "get well soon" letter to the likely short-timer.

"The Saharawi people, friends and connoisseurs of the Cuban revolution, are convinced of the return of the Commandante to exercise his duty," Abdelaziz wrote. "All the international community is awaiting for your quick recovery, and we will be awaiting with millions of other peoples around the world this happy news."

Abdelaziz wrote that he wanted to "maintain the full collaboration with the authorities of the Republic of Cuba," thus locking in long-term backing from Havana.

Better collaborate real quick.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company