A former Bush campaign adviser who appeared in an ad by a veterans group criticizing Democrat John F. Kerry made inappropriate partisan remarks to federal employees during a September training session at a Veterans Affairs office, a federal employee union contends.
The American Federation of Government Employees says comments by retired Air Force Col. Ken Cordier during a mandatory training session on prisoner-of-war issues violated the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity in the federal workplace. The union last week asked the Office of Special Counsel to investigate the Sept. 22 incident at the VA regional office in Waco, Tex.
Employees were told that Cordier, a pilot and former POW in North Vietnam, would not raise partisan matters during his talk, Mark D. Roth, the union's general counsel, wrote in a letter Oct. 26 to Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch.
But when Cordier took questions, "his comments included statements about scumbags who threw their medals over the fence, [and] that the Democratic Party was the 'peace' party, as if that were a derogatory title," Roth wrote.
Cordier left the Bush campaign in August after appearing in a TV ad sponsored by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The ad condemned the Massachusetts senator, alleging that after returning from serving in Vietnam, he said that U.S. forces there committed war crimes and atrocities. In the ad, Cordier says, "He betrayed us in the past. How can we be loyal to him now?"
VA employees knew of Cordier's connection to the Bush campaign "and felt highly coerced," Roth wrote.
Cordier, who lives in Dallas, said in an e-mail that VA officials asked him to discuss his experiences as a POW. The talk was to help VA officials who handle the claims of former prisoners better understand the effects of the long-term brutality and trauma prisoners suffered.
"It is important for those processing the claims of POWs to take into account the betrayal many of us felt by the abandonment of our government at the time and by those who actively participated in the anti-war movement, accusing us of being war criminals and giving our enemy great hope in defeating our country," Cordier said in the e-mail. "My statements to the VA were historical not political."
Cathy Deeds, a spokeswoman for the special counsel's office, said agency policy is not to comment on pending cases.
VA officials in Washington said the union's complaint was politically motivated and without merit. The union has endorsed Kerry for president.
Cynthia R. Church, a VA spokeswoman, said VA regional POW coordinator Virginia Raney invited Cordier to speak after seeing him give a presentation at a nonpartisan POW-related event in the Dallas area. VA officials told Cordier, who received no fee, to confine his remarks to his POW experiences.
Cordier gave a 45-minute presentation with no political references, said Tim S. McClain, the VA's general counsel.
There "was a question from the audience, something to the effect of, 'What do you think of these guys that threw their medals over a fence?' '' McClain said. "The response was something like, 'I think they're scumbags.' That's it."
VA employees clearly tried to keep partisan comments out of the training session, and the episode "does not come anywhere close to being a Hatch Act violation," McClain said.
Church said it is not uncommon for the VA to host speakers with partisan backgrounds. She noted that former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who has campaigned for Kerry, spoke to top managers in June.
J. Ward Morrow, the union's assistant general counsel, said VA officials are guilty of bad judgment at the very least for inviting Cordier. "People know this guy is a very partisan character," Morrow said. "That would be like, 'Let's bring in Michael Moore to talk about how to talk to the media, and make everybody go see him.' "
McClain questioned why the union did not complain until more than a month after the incident. "We've got October 26 as the letter [at] the same time that AFGE is running around Oregon and several other states with radio campaigns against the VA and against this current administration. I think there is a motive here," he said.
The VA, in turn, has asked the special counsel to investigate VA employees' participation in two recent union-related events at VA facilities and a union radio ad.
On Wednesday, employees picketing at a VA facility in Seattle charged the administration with the "breaking of the nation's covenant with those who pledged their lives to their country," according to a summary of the complaint provided by Church. On Tuesday, union President John Gage spoke to union members at a VA facility in Portland, Ore., about "short-changing our nation's veterans," the VA said.
In the radio ad, two people identify themselves as VA employees and criticize the quality of VA health care.
VA officials declined to release a copy of the complaint.
We "believe it is blatant, political activity aimed at influencing not only member voting -- but general voting as well," Church said in an e-mail.
Morrow said union members have adhered to the law by criticizing the performance of the VA without calling for the election or defeat of any particular candidate or political party.