Is NASA on the Hatch Act launching pad?

The Office of Special Counsel, which prosecutes Hatch Act violations, has sent a letter to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration asking for information on a campaign stop by Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week.

The Hatch Act limits political activities by federal employees and prohibits partisan activities on federal property. On July 26, Kerry held a "town hall" meeting in the NASA visitor center near the space shuttle launch pads.

The visitors center is managed by a vendor, Delaware North Cos., and often rents out rooms to conventions and corporate groups. When Democrats called to see if they could book Kerry, the appearance was deemed "a permissible event" by the center's staff members and their counterparts at NASA, said Dan LeBlanc, chief operating officer for the visitor complex.

LeBlanc said Kerry was accompanied by Florida's two senators, Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, as well as former senator John Glenn, the legendary astronaut. All are Democrats.

"It was not a campaign event but a town hall meeting," LeBlanc said. "It was not in a federal workplace but in a public facility on federal property."

According to news reports, about 400 Floridians attended the meeting, during which Kerry said the nation needs a president who believes in science and supports stem-cell medical research. The campaign provided 25 tickets to NASA employees, and about 30 employees attended.

"Any NASA employee who attended the town hall meeting had to take leave [vacation time] in order to go, and they did that," said Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman.

Jacobs said NASA has taken photographs of Kerry at the town hall meeting off its Web site "to ensure NASA's apolitical stance." The photos were removed at the request of the NASA general counsel, Jacobs said.

After the meeting, one of the Florida senators suggested that the group take a tour, and the NASA staff suggested that Kerry, Glenn and the Florida senators visit the building where the space shuttle Discovery is being prepared for launch.

If the Office of Special Counsel, headed by Scott J. Bloch, determines that the Kerry appearance represented a misuse of federal property, it can recommend that disciplinary action be taken against NASA employees who coordinated or approved the activities. The possible sanctions include dismissal from government employment.

IRS Asked to Restudy Layoff Plan

Workforce realignments planned by the Internal Revenue Service, which could lead to hundreds of layoffs, are drawing the scrutiny of the House Appropriations Committee.

The committee, in a report accompanying the fiscal 2005 spending bill that finances Treasury Department operations, has asked for "comprehensive information" on possible layoffs, known as a RIF, or reduction in force, in the government's jargon.

"Unfortunately, the department's initial responses to the committee have been less than adequate. The committee therefore directs the commissioner to refrain from further RIF actions until submitting a report not earlier than May 2, 2005, and not later than May 13, 2005, on the planned actions," the report says.

"We are studying the language," an IRS spokesman said. "It is too early to discuss possible impacts, but we are monitoring the situation closely."

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents rank-and-file IRS employees, has asked why the agency wants to lay off workers rather than try to retrain them for other jobs. Last month, the union said it had not been given a cost-benefit analysis of the workforce plans, which call for realignments in staffing.

The House committee also wants to see a cost-benefit analysis. It has directed the IRS to provide a study of several factors, including effects on productivity as offices are consolidated and staffing is reduced.

At risk of layoffs, the report says, are 1,600 case processing employees, 2,200 tax processing center employees, 780 technology services employees and 260 other employees.

How many of the employees will lose their jobs is unclear. The IRS plans to offer $25,00 cash buyouts, early retirements and job transfers to many of the targeted employees.

In its report, the committee directs the IRS to "use all available tools to minimize involuntary separations" if the agency moves forward with layoffs next year.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com