A Reagan administration official yesterday blamed Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro for letters that he sent to the governors of Ohio, Texas and New York questioning the legality of voter registration drives by state employes.
Donald J. Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said he was following instructions from Ferraro when he warned the three governors last month that some federal aid to their states might be stopped because employes were registering voters in state offices.
The Democratic governors accused Devine of trying to thwart the drives because people were being registered in all state offices, including employment and welfare offices.
Republican Party officials in Ohio and New York objected to the drives, in part, because they said they were aimed at recruiting persons who would be inclined to support Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale.
"Geraldine Ferraro made me do it," Devine told the House Government Operations manpower subcommittee.
He said Ferraro told him in a July 21, 1982, letter that he had to enforce a 1970 federal law that requires states to have a merit personnel system similar to the federal government's or face loss of federal funds. When it took office, the Reagan administration called for the law's repeal. Ferraro, who chaired a House subcommittee with OPM oversight in 1982, objected to the administration request.
Devine said Ferraro said states might "return to a spoils system" if OPM did not enforce the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970.
Devine cited a section of the law designed to protect state employes from "coercion for partisan political purposes" and prohibiting state officials from "using their official authority for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election . . . " as justification for his letters to the three governors.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called Devine's action a "very unfortunate misuse of federal power for partisan purposes."
Under questioning by Frank, Devine acknowledged that he did not pay any attention to Ferraro's 1982 letter for more than two years.
"The inescapable conclusion is that Geraldine Ferraro had no more to do with this than the moons of Jupiter," Frank told Devine. "This is unworthy of the rhetorical skills used in the past to cover your tracks."
"I assure you that she Ferraro was uppermost in my mind when I made the request," Devine replied.
Devine said his letters were not threats, but requests for information. But Texas Gov. Mark White and state officials from Ohio and New York said Devine's letter was threatening.
White said he was "outraged" by the letter, which he described was part of a "coordinated attack by this administration to reduce voter turnout" next month. The Labor Department also has warned Texas officials against using state employment offices to register voters, he said.
Ohio Secretary of State Sherrod Brown said two Republican state legislators filed suits to curb voter registration after Devine sent his letter.
Their actions were part of a "coordinated attempt" by the Republican Party to prevent "certain segments of our society" from registering, he charged.