By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
When Karl Rove's office requested special help for beleaguered Republican congressional candidates in the months before the 2006 elections, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy jumped to the task. Director John Walters was called a "superstar" by a Rove aide after carrying half-million-dollar grants to news conferences with two congressmen and a senator.
Walters's visits to Utah, Missouri and Nevada were among at least 303 out-of-town trips by senior Bush appointees meant to lend prestige or bring federal grants to 99 politically endangered Republicans that year, in a White House campaign that House Democratic investigators yesterday called unprecedented in scope and scale.
Federal law prohibits the use of public funds or resources for partisan activities -- and specifically barred Walters's office from any involvement in a federal election campaign -- but the agencies involved said most of the trips were paid for by taxpayer funds, according to the draft report released by the Democratic majority of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The report said that since the Rove aide and many others involved in organizing the trips are no longer in office, "there is no effective remedy" for any related violations of the 1939 Hatch Act, which restricts the use of public funds for partisan gain.
The report said the trips were freely described as political in subpoenaed e-mails and interviews. A list prepared at the White House two weeks before the election gave the names and dates of appearances by Cabinet secretaries in 73 key congressional districts, all under the heading "Final Push Surrogate Matrix."
"This is," the report said, "a gross abuse of the public trust."
The existence of the White House effort to turn federal officials into instruments of the 2006 Republican campaign effort is already well known. But the House report, based on a review of more than 63,000 pages of internal documents, includes fresh details about which Cabinet members participated and who benefited.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), makes clear in the report that Bush is hardly the first president to squeeze reelection support from the federal bureaucracy. It notes that one of President Bill Clinton's White House aides met with Cabinet secretaries and other senior appointees to brief them on tough races before the 1994 election.
The House committee probed the Clinton effort in the 1990s at the behest of its then-Republican chairman, but it "received no evidence of practices . . . resembling the coordinated and comprehensive strategy the Bush White House employed to use taxpayer resources to support Republican candidates for office," the report states.
The committee's senior Republican, Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), disputed this statement, however. "The same kind of things [were] done by every administration since Eisenhower," he said, and he compared the Democrats' "angry swooning" to the scene in "Casablanca" when the police captain feigns shock at finding gambling in Humphrey Bogart's nightclub. Not since then, he said, has "righteous indignation seemed quite so contrived."
In a separate report four times longer than the Democrats', Davis and his Republican colleagues said that in a few cases, Democratic politicians appeared at events tallied by Waxman's staff as partisan. They also said some trips occurred at lawmakers' request, not merely at White House insistence.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in a statement that the Democratic report was merely "an attempt to score political points."
The report details the activities of Sara Taylor, a Rove aide who ran the White House political office until last year and coordinated the effort. During the first 10 months of 2006, she sent periodic updates to the White House scheduling director, as well as White House liaisons at each agency, about which candidates deserved federal agency support.
White House e-mails to agencies urged officials to pay attention to "our top priorities going into November" in order to achieve "a good result on 11/7." Trips by Cabinet officials became so routine that Taylor's office developed a standard form to send around, titled "Secretary _____ Suggested Event Participation."
A July 2006 White House e-mail said that as the elections got closer, officials would have to participate in at least five "recommended events" per month. The message went to the appointed liaisons at 18 departments and agencies, who sometimes functioned like political commissars, enforcing discipline and rallying top appointees to the cause.
Taylor's office also ensured that orders were carried out, and e-mailed the liaisons when agency or department heads shirked their responsibilities or went to events with lawmakers who were not on the office's priority list of beleaguered Republicans.
In all, senior administration officials participated in 425 suggested events, according to the committee's tally, including 92 Republican Party events and 326 appearances with Republican candidates. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez was the most enthusiastic recruit, showing up at 59 events. Four other Cabinet secretaries -- of agriculture, housing and urban development, labor, and veterans affairs -- attended more than 20 apiece.
Walters made it to 19 events in 2006, while then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales went to two. Walters's office did not reply to a request for comment, but his aides have previously said the trips had legitimate, official purposes.
Agencies and departments questioned by investigators said that 185 of the 303 out-of-town trips urged by the political office were justifiably to attend what were considered official events, and were paid by tax dollars. The agencies could not determine whether another 59 trips were paid by tax dollars and did not say whether the events were "official."
Despite all the energy poured into the effort, it was hardly a sterling success. The report lists Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) as the target of 20 visits by Bush officials, and he was overwhelmingly defeated. Rep. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) got 12 visits, and she held onto her seat by only 875 votes. Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio), who got 10 visits, won a healthy 53 percent of the vote in his district, but Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.) collected just 44 percent after getting 10 visits herself.
In a contentious deposition, Taylor characterized all the out-of-town trips as efforts to "be helpful" to members of Congress who requested assistance, but she said she could not recall more precisely why some members were aided and others were not.
The committee judged her remarks during the deposition "evasive" and misleading, a conclusion that her lawyer W. Neil Eggleston said was an unwarranted "partisan slap." He said Taylor's testimony was "honest and forthright."
The committee report urged that the Hatch Act be amended to eliminate the political affairs office at the White House or to force it to serve "the interests of the taxpayer rather than the political party of the President."
The Republicans' report was less sanguine. No statute, it said, "can repeal the laws of political gravity."