By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has asked President Obama to withdraw his nominee for Department of Labor solicitor, saying she gave inconsistent testimony to the panel about a program she helped launch in New York this year.
Obama nominated New York State Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith in March to the third-ranking job at the Labor Department. If confirmed, she will serve as general counsel to Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis after more than 30 years of work on labor issues.
In a letter sent Monday to Obama, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said Smith's testimony before the Senate panel in May contradicted documents obtained by committee staffers about New York's Wage Watch program. The project, started in January and modeled after the Neighborhood Watch program, is an effort to root out companies that do not pay proper wages.
Enzi and his staffers suggest that the program unfairly targets small businesses and was developed without input from small-business representatives. Most notably, Enzi said Smith made "at least four significant statements" that contradicted documents describing the program's development, according to his letter.
Smith told the committee that the program was developed internally by state officials, but documents show that a union and a public interest entity partially financed by unions were involved in its development, according to Enzi spokesman Michael Mahaffey. Smith also described the program as an educational effort, but documents quote her aides, as well as unions and public interest groups, describing it as an enforcement program. Other statements by Smith about the involvement of labor unions and the future of the program also contradicted information in the documents.
"If it was her intention to mislead the Senate, then I must oppose her nomination," Enzi said in his letter. "If she unintentionally gave inaccurate statements to the Senate, then I question her ability to manage a large operation, since she does not have a clear understanding of what is taking place in her own department in New York."
The New York State Department of Labor did not respond to requests for comment. Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) still supports Smith's nomination, a spokesman said Tuesday.
The White House and the Labor Department declined to comment on the specific allegations, instead issuing a statement from Solis saying: "Patricia is one of the nation's foremost labor commissioners, and she has a well-deserved reputation for being a tough enforcer of the law. She is tough, fair and innovative. Our nation could ask for no better solicitor of labor than this."
Republicans have blocked or stalled the confirmation of several other Obama nominees because of home-state concerns, policy disagreements or questions about qualifications. About 45 percent of the 501 senior political appointments Obama must make have been confirmed by the Senate, according to figures compiled by The Washington Post. That's slightly more than the average for the same point in previous administrations. Eight of the Labor Department's 18 open political positions have been filled.