Report: Taxpayers paid for GOP politicking in 2006 elections

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 15, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The White House dispatched cabinet members and other agency officials to more than 300 events nationwide to help Republican candidates in the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections, according to a House of Representatives committee report.

Taxpayers paid for more than half of the events, the report said.

The draft report, issued Wednesday by California Rep. Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, accuses the White House of requesting the travel to save money for the Republican congressional campaigns.

The administration also authorized mandatory political briefings for agency political appointees with the aim of helping Republican candidates, the report charges.

From Jan. 1, 2006, to Election Day in 2006, administration officials made 326 appearances with Republican candidates, with 185 of them at taxpayer expense, the report said.

Waxman concedes in the report that other administrations have been accused of using government resources to help the president's political party win elections, including the last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton. However, he asserts that the "extent of political activity by the current White House and its deep and systematic reach into the federal agencies are unprecedented."

Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, the ranking Republican member of the committee, criticized the report, calling it "hopelessly political" when some cabinet members made appearances with Democrats during their trips. Davis, who's retiring from Congress at the end of the year, also questioned how Waxman arrived at his conclusions when he didn't analyze whether previous administrations had authorized as many trips.

"It's like trying to call the winner of a baseball game by giving the score of only one team," Davis said. "How does this appear unprecedented?"

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel also dismissed the report and criticized a reporter for asking whether the White House had made any changes in its policies since the meetings became controversial last year.

"I strongly disagree with the implication that because a Democratic congressman sends out a press release and a few reporters write about it that it is now somehow 'controversial,'" Stanzel wrote in an e-mail.

"With less than three weeks to go before Election Day," Stanzel said, Waxman "has released a draft report on political activities in Washington in an attempt to score political points."

Waxman launched the investigation last year after reports that the White House was briefing the General Services Administration on Republican political strategy.

During one briefing in 2007, a White House official gave a slide presentation describing the top House Republicans the White House wanted to defend in the 2008 election and the top House Democrats it wanted to defeat, according to the report.

Then-GSA Administrator Lurita Doan was overheard asking how "we" could help "our candidates" in the next election. Doan, who later resigned, has said she doesn't recall making that remark.

Under the Hatch Act for Federal Employees, cabinet members are permitted to attend political briefings and appear with members of Congress. But cabinet officers and other political appointees aren't permitted to spend taxpayer money with the aim of benefiting candidates or to participate in political activities while performing their official duties. Violations of the Hatch Act are treated as administrative, not criminal, matters, and punishment for violations ranges from suspension to termination.

According to Waxman's report, Ken Mehlman, President Bush's first Director of the Office of Political Affairs, first established an "asset deployment" team in 2002 to mobilize agency officials to travel to events with Republican candidates.

In 2006, the Office of Political Affairs used target lists of Republicans who were vulnerable or in close races to develop recommendations for travel to events in the districts of Republican candidates, the report said.

White House officials urged agencies on some occasions to pay for travel with taxpayer money, Waxman said. In a September 2006 e-mail, Jon Seaton, an official in the Office of Political Affairs, asked whether there was any "official component" to travel by then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson to Washington state for an appearance with Doug Roulstone, a Republican candidate for the House.

In his e-mail, Seaton said, "Needless to say, trying to save the campaign as much $$ as possible." According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the events were considered official.

Roulstone lost his bid against incumbent Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen.

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