Military and civilian employees at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque received an unusual e-mail inviting them to attend an Aug. 26 campaign rally for President Bush.
"The White House has extended an invitation to TEAM KIRTLAND to attend President Bush's speech downtown at the Convention Center," read the message, sent by Deborah Mercurio, the director of public affairs for the 377th Air Base Wing. "Doors open at 12:00 p.m. and no one is to arrive later than 2:00 p.m. For those interested, please stop by the Wing PA office for tickets."
To Mercurio, the e-mail, which cautioned military personnel not to wear their uniforms or represent themselves as attending in their official military capacity, amounted to nothing more than a nice gesture by the White House to provide the base's workers with a chance to see their commander in chief.
To federal employee unions, it represented the latest attempt by the Bush administration and its supporters to transform what is supposed to be a politically neutral federal bureaucracy into an arm of the president's reelection campaign. Bush spent the day touting his record in three cities across the battleground state, which he lost by 366 votes four years ago.
"They basically rounded up the people and told the military, 'Don't wear your uniforms and get over to the convention center and root for the president,' " said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. The "party, the administration, whoever, just seems to be using our military and our civil service as a prop for campaign events."
Gage and other union leaders are keeping track of such incidents. They say government officials have used agency computers to e-mail federal workers memos highlighting presidential accomplishments and posted politically charged language on a Cabinet department's Web site.
At the same time, federal bosses have tried to restrict their employees from volunteering on their own time for Democratic nominee John F. Kerry and issued guidelines on campaigning on federal property that favor Bush, the administration's critics say.
"It seems like there's not really a level playing field here," said J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for AFGE, which represents about 600,000 federal workers and has endorsed Kerry for president.
Mercurio said she does not understand what all the fuss is about. Base officials did not encourage attendance at the Bush rally, and the e-mail pointed out that on-duty personnel would have to take leave to go.
"It was to see their commander in chief and not at all the politician," she said. "I don't even know for sure who I'm going to vote for, so it's not like I was campaigning for him or anything."
But when Michelle Sandoval, president of AFGE Local 2263, later asked base officials to give employees the same opportunity to attend a Kerry speech Sept. 16 in Albuquerque, she was turned down.
Col. Hank Andrews, commander of the 377th Air Base Wing, said in an e-mail to Sandoval that after complaints were filed about the Aug. 26 e-mail, "the Commander of AFMC [Air Force Materiel Command] subsequently felt it was important to emphasize that we should exercise caution regarding these events. . . . In light of all of this information, I must decline your request."
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy dismissed as unfounded the union's allegations that officials have trampled the spirit -- and at times the letter -- of the Hatch Act, a decades-old law that restricts partisan political activities in the federal workplace.
"This White House and this administration adheres to the highest ethical standards and the rules and regulations put in place by the Hatch Act," Healy said. The complaints go beyond mere grumbling about the natural political advantages enjoyed by an incumbent president who can command daily media attention, crisscross the country in Air Force One and mix his official duties and political events. Some of the incidents appear to be clear violations of the Hatch Act, union officials said.
The law, which dates to 1939 and most recently was amended 11 years ago, is supposed to keep politics out of the federal workplace and ensure that taxpayer-supported resources are not misused in the service of partisan campaigns. It also is designed to foster a work environment in which employees know their job security does not depend on supporting the same candidate as the boss.
Under the act, federal employees cannot engage in political activity while on duty, use their official authority to influence an election, solicit money for a partisan candidate or run as a candidate for partisan office. Employees may, however, run in nonpartisan elections, vote, express opinions about candidates and contribute money to them, as well as campaign for or against a candidate -- so long as they do such things on their own time.
Union officials cited several examples of what they consider to be inappropriate political activity within executive branch agencies this election season:
* On Aug. 16, the Department of Veterans Affairs e-mailed its public affairs officers a two-page "fact sheet" titled, "Supporting and Strengthening the Military and Military Families." The document, which was created by the White House and touted Bush's record on veterans issues, was, in turn, e-mailed to all VA employees in the Tampa area. An identical version was posted on the official Bush-Cheney campaign Web site two days later.
Cynthia R. Church, a VA spokeswoman, said the document was an internal resource for use by public affairs officials in responding to reporters' queries. After its wider dissemination generated questions, VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi halted distribution and began a legal review, which found nothing improper, Church said.
"We don't have anything to do with the campaign," Church said. "The department's mission transcends politics. Our only job is to serve our nation's veterans."
* In early April, shortly before federal tax returns were due, the Treasury Department issued a news release that read, in part: "America has a choice: It can continue to grow the economy and create new jobs as the President's policies are doing; or it can raise taxes on American families and small businesses, hurting economic recovery and future job creation." The language appeared verbatim on an April 2 fact sheet put out by the Republican National Committee.
Various Democratic groups called the Treasury release unethical and a possible violation of the Hatch Act. Treasury officials maintained that they did nothing wrong.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency headed by Bush appointee Scott J. Bloch, enforces the Hatch Act, but critics say Bloch has failed to aggressively pursue apparent violations of the law that favor Bush.
Cathy Deeds, an OSC spokeswoman, defended the agency's record, saying, "We enforce the Hatch Act equally in a totally bipartisan manner."
Deeds noted that the agency recently sought disciplinary action against two employees accused in separate incidents of sending partisan messages to colleagues through government e-mail. In one case, an Environmental Protection Agency employee sent an anti-Kerry message featuring a purported photograph of Kerry and actress Jane Fonda speaking at an anti-Vietnam War rally. In the other, an Air Force civilian worker e-mailed a document mocking Bush's resume and urging the president's defeat this fall.
"One [incident] was anti-Kerry, one was anti-Bush," Deeds said. "We're going to enforce the Hatch Act no matter who the offender is."
Union officials say some of the administration's actions seem designed to intimidate employees who might want to support Kerry.
For example, supervisors recently told some Los Angeles-area employees of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection that anyone who wants to engage in outside volunteer activity, including political campaign work, would have to request formal approval first. In a Sept. 7 letter to Robert C. Bonner, commissioner of the bureau, Colleen M. Kelley, another union leader, called such a requirement "an intolerable infringement" of employees constitutional rights that would create "an impermissible chilling effect."
Agency officials called the situation a misinterpretation of rules governing outside employment that arose during a routine discussion about avoiding conflicts of interest. They said the agency had begun correcting the problem even before the union sent its letter.
"As soon as our chief counsel saw the mistake, they called up and said, 'Whoa, whoa, you don't fill out these forms for this,' " said Christiana Halsey, an agency spokeswoman. "Employees can do whatever political activity outside of their official time that they want. That's their constitutional right."
In July, an internal newsletter for employees of the Internal Revenue Service sought to clarify the Hatch Act's restrictions on political activity by employees. It offered an example of "Revenue Agent Smith" who becomes "very inspired by her fellow volunteers" while working on Bush's reelection campaign. Smith decides to put a campaign sticker in her cubicle and send out a division-wide e-mail asking people to vote for Bush, actions the newsletter warned would violate the law.
The newsletter's message may have been well-intentioned, but it would have been better delivered without naming either major party candidate, said Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal employees and, like AFGE, has endorsed Kerry.
"There was no such message that federal employees would be supporting Kerry because they were 'inspired,' " Kelley said. "I can tell you when it hit the workplace, I got a lot of phone calls."
AFGE's Morrow acknowledged that in every election season a few isolated employees of both parties will cross the line in bringing political passions into the workplace. But whether such incidents are honest mistakes or the product of a coordinated effort by the administration, the chilling effect they have on federal workers is the same, he said.
"The whole point of the Hatch Act is to protect the employees from being coerced into doing things," Morrow said. "If employees want to go out and vote and work for the candidate of their choice, they should. But what we don't want to see is [federal] employers treating it like merit system employees are part of a patronage system that, because your manager is in favor of this or that candidate, therefore there is a presumption that you should show up and support that candidate. . . . That's certainly going to chill the workforce in terms of what they think they can and cannot do."