WASHINGTON — The White House sent officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy to 20 political events featuring vulnerable Republican members of Congress shortly before the 2006 elections, and at taxpayers' expense.
Is that evidence of improperly politicizing a government office? Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is looking into that question. He sent letters Tuesday to drug czar John P. Walters and former White House Political Affairs Director Sara Taylor requesting documents and interviews.
His inquiry comes on the heels of an ongoing congressional investigation into the possible politicization of U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration and after former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona testified last week that the White House routinely interfered with his ability to do his job by imposing political limits on him.
In a letter to Taylor, Waxman noted the investigation into the Justice Department's firings of nine U.S. attorneys and said that documents his committee had obtained recently "suggest that White House efforts to politicize the activities of federal agencies may be more widespread than previously known."
Waxman said the committee had received a Nov. 20, 2006, memorandum that showed that Walters and his deputies had attended more than 20 events with vulnerable Republican members of Congress in the months before the midterm elections. The trips were combined with announcements of federal grants to the endangered lawmakers' states or districts, according to Waxman.
"You included no Democrats or Independents in your memo of suggested travel for Director Walters," Waxman wrote to Taylor.
Waxman said that a memo written by Douglas Simon, the drug policy office's White House liaison, detailed a post-election meeting in which White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove thanked the office and other federal agencies for their help in the campaigns.
"Karl Rove opened the meeting with a thank you for all of the work that went into the surrogate appearances by cabinet members and for the 72 Hour deployment," Simon wrote. "He specifically thanked, for going above and beyond the call of duty, the Dept. of Commerce, Transportation, Agriculture, AND the WH Drug Policy Office."
A White House official said travel by drug-policy officials was strictly policy-related and wasn't connected to the elections.
"It's another day, another letter from Representative Waxman," said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman. "What the requests show today is that Director John Walters traveled around the country to meet with representatives in communities that have been hit hard by the scourge of drugs, and that is completely appropriate."
Stanzel also said that Walters and drug policy office staff did travel for events with Democrats last year, including Iowa Gov. Thomas Vilsack, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, Philadelphia Mayor John Street and Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California.
Last month, the Oversight Committee asked the drug policy office to provide memos from Taylor and other communications between the office and the White House, and requested an interview with Simon.
The drug policy office initially indicated that it would comply with the requests, Waxman noted in his letter to Walters. But the office told the committee late last week that White House officials were reviewing the request and hadn't agreed to make Simon available.
In his latest request, Waxman asked Walters for all documents relating to the involvement of Rove or officials in the White House Political Affairs Office on "scheduling, suggesting, coordinating or directing events with Republican elected officials or Republican candidates for any ONDCP officials" last year.
The White House and Democratic lawmakers are at odds over congressional scrutiny of how the Bush administration conducts business on a number of fronts. Bush asserted executive privilege last week to block the testimony of administration officials in a House Judiciary Committee probe of whether politics played a role in the firings of the U.S. attorneys.
Lawmakers did hear blunt testimony on another front last week, however, when Carmona, who was the surgeon general from 2002 to 2006, accused the White House of trying to suppress or dilute important health reports for political reasons.