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Government lawyers volunteer their services to GOP organization

WASHINGTON—In his day job, Christian Adams writes legal briefs for the voting rights section of the Justice Department, a job that requires a nonpartisan approach.

Off the clock, Adams belongs to the Republican National Lawyers Association, a group that trains hundreds of Republican lawyers to monitor elections and pushes for confirmation of conservative nominees for federal judgeships.

Vice President Dick Cheney credited the 3,000-member association in 2005 with helping the Republicans win the previous two presidential elections. Last year, President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove shared with the group his insights on winning elections in key battleground states. At a conference the association organized last month, speakers called the controversy over whether eight U.S. attorneys had been fired for partisan political reasons "farcical" and "ridiculous."

According to the group's Web site, Adams is one of dozens of Bush administration appointees or civil servants who are members, including at least 25 in the Justice Department, nine in the Department of Defense and others in the Labor and Commerce departments, the White House and the Office of Special Counsel, which oversees investigations into allegations of ethical misconduct by government employees.

Some are entry-level employees; others are high-ranking political appointees.

Their names appeared on the organization's Web site under the heading "Find a Republican Lawyer," in many cases along with their federal government e-mail addresses and work telephone numbers.

While government employees are permitted to be members of political organizations, the prominent listings on the Republican National Lawyers Association's Web site strike some current and former Justice Department lawyers as inappropriate, especially given that several members of the group work in the Justice Department's voting section, criminal division or as assistant U.S. attorneys.

Lawyers in those jobs are supposed to be especially careful to avoid the appearance of partisanship, because of the sensitive political nature of the cases they may handle, including voting access lawsuits and public corruption cases.

Justice Department officials deny any improper politicization, but after McClatchy Newspapers contacted Adams, his affiliation with the Justice Department was removed from his listing on the association's Web site. He declined to comment.

The work phone number, e-mail address and biography of counterterrorism adviser Frances Fragos Townsend also were removed at her request after McClatchy contacted the White House.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Townsend "is a member in her personal capacity. That is perfectly lawful." He added that Townsend told him "she's not active really at all."

Former and current Justice Department officials said the Web site listings were an example of how government lawyers had become more open about their political leanings as federal agencies took a more permissive—even encouraging—stance toward partisan political activism.

Congress changed the law in 1993 to allow most government employees to accept political leadership positions, work on political campaigns and raise money for political causes. Under President Clinton, many federal employees were members of liberal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

But some former and current Justice Department officials said such overt involvement in partisan political organizations by lawyers in sensitive government jobs was a troubling sign that partisan politics might be inappropriately seeping into the government bureaucracy in the Bush administration.

"I can't imagine Justice Department employees advertising their membership in a political organization in my day," said Stanley Hunterton, a former federal prosecutor of 12 years who investigated organized crime in Detroit and Las Vegas before he left the department in 1985 during the Reagan administration. "We didn't even talk about politics, let alone identify ourselves as willing to work on behalf of a political party."

"This takes it to a whole new level," agreed a former high-ranking Justice Department official who worked as a political appointee under Republican and Democratic administrations, and who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to antagonize the current administration. "Most of us had the sense to recognize that you had to be careful because you don't want to create an appearance problem."

Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who's a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said she didn't think the employees necessarily had violated any policy or law. But she was disturbed by the idea that the employees could be called and asked to work on behalf of Republicans, in some cases while at work.

"I just think they're being used in a way that could compromise public confidence in their work," she said. "There's a fine line between honoring the First Amendment rights of the employee and upholding the integrity of the Justice Department. It seems to me that we're teetering over that line here."

The Bush administration already is facing questions about deepening political partisanship among government employees.

Congressional investigators are trying to determine whether politics played a role in the firings of U.S. attorneys and are probing a briefing by an aide to White House adviser Karl Rove for General Service Administration appointees about Republican goals in the 2008 election.

Administration officials accuse congressional Democrats of overreaching.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said membership in the lawyers' group was allowed under department policy and under the federal Hatch Act, which governs executive branch employees, so long as it didn't "conflict substantially with the performance of his or her duties as a department employee."

But Roehrkasse said employees couldn't use government resources for partisan political activity, and "if we learn that an employee's work number or e-mail is listed on a partisan Web site, the employee will be advised to contact the organization and have this contact information removed."

He declined to say whether any employees had been asked to remove their information from the Republican National Lawyers Association's Web site.

The association's executive director, Michael Thielen, said the listing of government employees on the group's Web site was designed to provide more transparency, unlike some other partisan groups that don't divulge membership, such as the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization.

The Republican National Lawyers Association was founded in the mid-1980s by supporters of President Reagan who wanted to build a community of Republican election-law experts. The group's membership was boosted significantly beginning in 2001, partly because Republicans were becoming more concerned about the effects of possible voting fraud in close national elections, Thielen said.

In 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, the association raised about $338,000. Election monitoring is its biggest expense. In preparation for the 2006 congressional elections, the group launched dozens of election-monitoring classes, which at least 30 states certify as continuing education classes.

Thielen said his group often was contacted before elections by Republican candidates or party officials who were seeking help with poll watching, recounts and other election activities. He said his group acted as a conduit for referrals but didn't otherwise get involved in any election work.

He defended the involvement of government employees in his organization. "I don't think membership blurs your judgment in any way," he said.

He said that some government employees during the Clinton administration were just as active in political organizations. The difference was they weren't open about it, he said.

But a Democratic National Committee official said he didn't think that any lawyer affiliated with its lawyers' network was employed by the Justice Department, State Department or Defense Department now or under the Clinton administration. Government employees in those agencies were expected to resign membership in partisan organizations similar to the Republican National Lawyers Association, the official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity after refusing repeated requests to be identified.

Changes to the Hatch Act allowed greater political activity, in response to bipartisan criticism that the rules limited free speech. Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno later initiated a policy change allowing Justice Department lawyers to volunteer their time in pro bono cases so long as the work didn't conflict with their jobs.

Certain employees, however—such as lawyers in the criminal division of the Justice Department, employees of the CIA and other law-enforcement agencies and certain Defense Department workers—are still barred from accepting political leadership positions, working on political campaigns or fundraising.

Even after the changes, the Justice Department advised all its employees that they have a responsibility to enforce the nation's laws "in a neutral and impartial manner," a recommendation that remains posted on its Web site:

"For the public to retain its confidence that we are adhering to our responsibility, we must ensure that politics—both in fact and appearance—does not compromise the integrity of our work."

Republican National Lawyers Association member Douglas Thiessen, 33, who's assistant general counsel for the Parole Commission within the Justice Department, said he wasn't aware that his information was on the group's Web site, although association officials said they posted such information only with members' permission.

Thiessen added, however, that he didn't see any harm in such information being on in the Web site because he thought it demonstrated that Republicans were simply following the Clinton Democrats' example of encouraging more political activism. Thiessen also serves as an officer on a local Republican Party committee in Maryland.

"`Find a Republican lawyer' is just like if you're a Christian you might want to call a Christian lawyer," said Thiessen, who said he hadn't accepted outside work in connection with the site.

It's unknown how many of the government's lawyers, if any, are performing partisan election work on the side as result of being members of the group.

McClatchy reached more than 30 members of the association who are government lawyers; only about half agreed to interviews. Of those, all described their membership as essentially passive, saying they've attended meetings or continuing-education seminars but didn't hold leadership posts or raise money.

Two members said they'd served as poll watchers in previous elections, but one of them said he'd stopped participating in such activities last year when he became an assistant U.S. attorney. Another member said he'd attended election-monitor training provided by the association but had no intention of monitoring elections on behalf of the group.

Larry Cote, 34, a Drug Enforcement Administration lawyer, said his membership in the Republican group was no different from being part of a civic organization. Cote said he was especially mindful of potential conflicts because in his first job at the Justice Department as an ethics attorney he saw other lawyers make mistakes. "I'm overly cautious in my career about things like that," he said.

Justice Department lawyer Del Wright Jr. said he didn't see any problem with listing his work phone number on the Web site. "I take calls from the public so I didn't see any reason not to allow anyone to call me," he said.

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(McClatchy correspondent Tish Wells contributed to this report.)

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