Political Briefings At Agencies Disclosed
White House Calls Meetings Lawful
White House officials conducted 20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies covered by federal restrictions on partisan political activity, a White House spokesman and other administration officials said yesterday.
The previously undisclosed briefings were part of what now appears to be a regular effort in which the White House sent senior political officials to brief top appointees in government agencies on which seats Republican candidates might win or lose, and how the election outcomes could affect the success of administration policies, the officials said.
The existence of one such briefing, at the headquarters of the General Services Administration in January, came to light last month, and the Office of Special Counsel began an investigation into whether the officials at the briefing felt coerced into steering federal activities to favor those Republican candidates cited as vulnerable.
Such coercion is prohibited under a federal law, known as the Hatch Act, meant to insulate virtually all federal workers from partisan politics. In addition to forbidding workplace pressures meant to influence an election outcome, the law bars the use of federal resources — including office buildings, phones and computers — for partisan purposes.
The administration maintains that the previously undisclosed meetings were appropriate. Those discussing the briefings on the record yesterday uniformly described them as merely “informational briefings about the political landscape.” But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who has been investigating the GSA briefing, said, “Politicization of departments and agencies is a serious issue. We need to know more about these and other briefings.”
In the GSA briefing — conducted like all the others by a deputy to chief White House political adviser Karl Rove — two slides were presented showing 20 House Democrats targeted for defeat and several dozen vulnerable Republicans.
At its completion, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked how GSA projects could be used to help “our candidates,” according to half a dozen witnesses. The briefer, J. Scott Jennings, said that topic should be discussed “off-line,” the witnesses said. Doan then replied, “Oh, good, at least as long as we are going to follow up,” according to an account given by former GSA chief acquisition officer Emily Murphy to House investigators, according to a copy of the transcript.
“Something was going to take place potentially afterwards” regarding Doan’s request, GSA deputy director of communications Jennifer Millikin told investigators she concluded at the time.
Doan, appearing before the oversight committee on March 28, said, “I believe that all around government, there are non-career employees who meet to discuss different ways to advance policies and programs of the administration.” But she added that it “is not the same as asking federal employees to engage in partisan political activities in the workplace,” a request she said she did not recall making.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that he was not familiar with the details of the briefings for other agencies, but that the projected fate of specific candidates was “certainly” discussed. He also said that in addition to the 20 briefings given in 2006-2007, “there were others throughout the last six years,” making clear that this was a common Bush administration practice during each election cycle.
Stanzel said that Rove “occasionally spoke to political appointees at departments and agencies” but that his presentations were more “off the cuff” and were meant to convey “their importance to advancing the president’s agenda.”
At the Commerce Department, briefings by White House political officials were conducted in 2002, in March 2004, and in April 2006, according to department spokesman E. Richard Mills, who described them as “purely informational,” legal and appropriate. More than 100 political appointees at the department were invited to each one, and they were held in the headquarters building’s main auditorium.
A smaller White House briefing was also conducted every two years for what Mills described as the department’s senior political staff, including Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. He could not explain why that meeting was separate from the others.
Twenty-eight political appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency attended such a briefing last July 17 at the White House executive office complex, and an unknown number attended one at those offices the following month, according to EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood. She said that Jennings gave the presentation at the first meeting and that Sara M. Taylor, who directs the White House Office of Political Affairs, gave the second one.
Spokesmen at the departments of Veterans Affairs and Transportation also confirmed that their political appointees received such briefings at their headquarters. Stanzel confirmed that they were also given at the departments of Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Education, Agriculture and Energy, as well as NASA, the Small Business Administration, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
By the end of yesterday afternoon, all of those describing the briefings on the record had adopted a uniform phrase in response to a reporter’s inquiries: They were, each official said, “informational briefings about the political landscape.”
At the Department of Homeland Security, spokesman Russ Knocke at first said “there is no indication that any meeting on election targets, congressional districts or candidate support or assistance took place at the department.” He then called back to alter that remark, saying he had no indication that such a meeting was held at department “offices.” A department official said employees were briefed on “morale” but did not elaborate.
Scott J. Bloch, director of the Office of Special Counsel, alluded to the multiple briefings in an interview Monday, saying that “we have had allegations” and “received information” about similar talks that were held elsewhere besides GSA.
“Political forecasts, just generally . . . I do not regard as illegal political activity,” Bloch added. But he said his office would examine whether it was appropriate to use federal facilities or resources as well as review exactly what was said. “Where you cross the line is where you get into the slant of someone being elected or defeated” or trying to get a political party into or out of power, he said.
Justin Busch, a GSA appointee who attended the briefing there, told the investigators that Doan’s comment made him “very uncomfortable.” Dennis R. Smith, the regional GSA administrator in Boston, recalled a “feeling of unease” at Doan’s additional mention of the need to manage a GSA building visit by then-incoming House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) cited Doan’s reported remarks yesterday in a Brookings Institution speech that criticized the Bush administration for using “all the levers of power” to promote its political interests and attempting to make the federal government “a stepchild of the Republican Party.”
Staff writer Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.