Hatch Act Hatchet Job

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, June 4, 2007

A year ago Lurita Alexis Doan, an innovative African American entrepreneur from Northern Virginia, took a big government job: chief executive of the General Services Administration (GSA). After 12 months she is on the ropes. She is the victim of a fiercely partisan Democratic congressman, an obscure government official trying to vindicate himself and a lame-duck Republican White House unwilling to protect her.

Next week, Doan is scheduled to again face the intimidating Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He will grill her about allegedly "misleading and false" statements she made to U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch. A 19-page report by Bloch finds her guilty of violating the 68-year-old Hatch Act -- which restricts federal officials from using their jobs for political purposes -- because in the presence of GSA political appointees, she was reported to have asked how to "help our candidates." With President Bush's political staff busy elsewhere, Doan has had to fend for herself and to retain the help of law and public relations firms.

This is a cautionary tale about Washington, where well-motivated people can find themselves sinking into a political cesspool -- especially at the end of an eight-year administration. With the GSA's 13,000 employees and $56 billion in annual contracts (to construct and maintain federal buildings), Doan was naive in thinking it enough to institute businesslike procedures. "Ever since I made the decision to restore fiscal discipline to all divisions within GSA," she has said, "I have had to face a series of personal attacks and charges." Clearly difficult to work with, Doan may face a humiliating dismissal by President Bush.

When Doan appeared before Waxman's committee March 28 on "allegations of misconduct," she was prepared to talk about her approval of a contract with Sun Microsystems that has been the subject of contention. Rep. Tom Davis, the committee's ranking Republican, who is not known to overlook GOP misdeeds, found "simply no evidence" that Doan "acted improperly."

Doan was taken by surprise that day to find Waxman concentrating instead on a Jan. 26 political briefing about the 2006 elections by Scott Jennings, deputy White House political director, to 30 GSA political appointees -- including Administrator Doan. Such briefings were delivered by Jennings throughout the federal government and are not viewed by the White House as violating the 1939 Hatch Act. Waxman fixed on this question said to have been asked by Doan at the briefing: "How can we help our candidates?"

That resulted in the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC), which tracks Hatch Act violations, saying it could "imagine no greater violation of the Hatch Act than to invoke the machinery of an agency . . . in the service of a partisan campaign to retake the Congress and the governors' mansions."

But the Jan. 26 meeting targeted no candidate for support, solicited no GSA employee for political activity and resulted in no follow-up. Doan's question actually was addressed to Jennings. "The harsh penalties under the Hatch Act for a brief slip-up are unwarranted," a congressional Republican source close to the situation told me. "Doan's resignation is a punishment that does not fit the crime."

Waxman has made no secret of his intent to hound the Bush administration whenever possible, with emphasis on nailing presidential adviser Karl Rove. Bloch's motives are more complicated. He has survived a ferocious left-wing assault (accusing him of being anti-gay), which the White House not only failed to resist but quietly supported. It is payback time for Bloch, to burnish the OSC's reputation and maybe to get even.

The White House has done no more to help Doan than it did for Bloch. One congressional Republican asked a senior White House aide why. The response, he said, amounted to this: This is a very tough time for us when we are preoccupied trying to save Alberto Gonzales, and Doan will just have to save herself.

When I asked Rep. Davis, he replied: "The bottom line is the administration has really not shown any willingness to stand up for her like they have for Gonzales, when what she has done is not nearly so egregious." She will at least have Davis on her side when she faces the committee June 13. Having one friend in Washington is better than having none.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 Creators