Obama administration slow to adapt Hatch Act standards on electioneering laws, report says

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 7:09 PM

When the Office of Special Counsel was wrapping up a three-year investigation into allegations of widespread violations of electioneering laws by the Bush administration, it conducted an informal survey of how well the Obama administration was handling such matters.

It found, according to a report released Monday and a spokesman for the counsel's office, that only a single Cabinet-level department under President Obama has adopted reasonable safeguards to ensure that illegal political activities do not occur on government premises, on workers' official time or at government expense.

And even the standards at that department, which the office declined to name, fall short of what is needed, spokesman Darshan Sheth said. Only some of its procedures were cited in the report as a model for a government-wide policy, because they include "certain definitions not in total compliance with the Hatch Act," which bars certain electioneering by federal workers, he said.

The conclusion by the principal Hatch Act watchdog that the Obama administration has not learned the right lessons from Bush-era misconduct was a hidden subtext in the 112-page report issued Monday, three years after many of the allegations against Bush surfaced.

White House spokesman Reid Cherlin responded Tuesday that "from the beginning of the administration, agencies have been consulting with OSC to make sure they comply with the Hatch Act." Obama also decided this month to move the White House political office - the institution responsible for abuses during the Bush years - out of Washington and base it in Chicago, the location of his campaign headquarters for 2012.

The special counsel's office, now run on an interim basis by career appointee William E. Reukauf while Obama appointee Carolyn N. Lerner seeks confirmation, did not deeply probe current practices or find any specific evidence of wrongdoing. But it highlighted procedures that only one department put in place as "a good example" to others.

Those procedures include special oversight and approval for appearances by top officials at political events and a requirement that expenses for such appearances must be paid by political sources in advance. It also requires that its general counsel vet such payments once the event has passed to ensure the amounts match up.

The report also says that career staff - not political appointees - should "be involved in determining whether an event is official or political."

The report says that all of these procedures were honored in the breach, so to speak, during the 2006 election cycle. It described frequent politically motivated travel by seven Bush Cabinet secretaries and other top appointees who wrongly said they were acting on official business.

A visit to North Carolina by Dirk Kempthorne, Bush's Interior secretary, was typical of many organized by the White House political office that year, the report says. A day before the election, Kempthorne and his aides toured the site of a $5 million visitors center near Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway that was a year from completion.

Kempthorne said the center would bring a billion dollars in new economic activity to the region. Standing beside him was Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), a socially conservative former banker and farmer lagging in the polls behind the Democratic congressional nominee, former Redskin Heath Shuler.

Taylor told reporters at the event that his reelection would enable him to "take the clout that I have" as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee dealing with interior and water resources "and continue to work here for western North Carolina." But, when asked whether the event was campaign-related, he and Kempthorne said it was not, according to news accounts.

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