Bush Administration violated Hatch Act in campaigning against Perlmutter

A report released yesterday by the Office of Special Counsel (pdf) indicates that the George W. Bush White House violated the Hatch Act by spending taxpayer money to send a cabinet level official to Colorado to campaign for Rick O’Donnell in his 2006 run against Ed Perlmutter for what was then an open congressional seat.

The report, “Investigation of Political Activities by White House and Federal Agency Officials During the 2006 Midterm Elections,” found that “White House Office of Political Affairs (OPA) employees, as well as high-level agency political appointees, violated the Hatch Act through a number of practices that were prevalent during the months leading up to the 2006 midterm elections.”

The Hatch Act prohibits the use of government resources for campaign purposes.

The report found that the OPA, under the direction of Karl Rove, repeatedly violated the Hatch Act.

From the report:

On February 23, 2006, DOEd Secretary Margaret Spellings attended two events with Rick O’Donnell, a “Tier 1” candidate from Colorado who was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time, Mr. O’Donnell was Chairman of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The first event was a fundraising breakfast for Mr. O’Donnell and was classified as “political” by DOEd. Following the fundraising breakfast, Secretary Spellings attended an event described as “Remarks and Q&A with Rick O’Donnell.” This second event was classified as official. After the trip, DOEd determined that O’Donnell’s campaign was responsible for 35 percent of the costs of Secretary Spellings’ trip to Denver on that date.

A look behind the scenes, however, shows that Secretary Spellings’ attendance at the second event actually was intended to support Mr. O’Donnell’s campaign. On February 7, 2006, an individual from O’Donnell’s campaign staff sent an e-mail to Surrogate Scheduler McLaughlin with the subject line, “RE: Spellings event for O’Donnell on 2/23” using an e-mail address ending in “rickodonnell.com.” The staff member asked: “Do you need a proposal today? We definitely would like to schedule an event in the Denver area that morning.” The campaign staff member continued: “We are thinking a fundraising breakfast round-table and then we could pop into a school on the way to the airport . . . . Yes we definitely want her and I will get back to you with a proposal shortly.” Thereafter, Ms. McLaughlin e-mailed the campaign’s proposal to the White House liaison at DOEd, who, in turn, forwarded it to the agency’s OGC. The origin of the proposal, i.e., a campaign staff member, could be traced on this e-mail chain.

The campaign’s proposal, which was entitled “Proposed Schedule with Rick O’Donnell[,] Candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, CO-7,” began, “The following proposed schedule assists the campaign both with fundraising as well as earned media by playing to Mr. O’Donnell’s strengths as the Governor’s Cabinet appointee overseeing the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.” The proposal then outlined the itinerary for both events, listing the purpose of the second event as “Earned media.” The second event was described as a town hall meeting at a local school, where the Secretary would speak about “her priorities regarding high school reform” and “[reflect] on the important work Colorado is undertaking in this area under Mr. O’Donnell’s leadership.” OGC attorneys told the White House liaison that the introductory language “raises issues,” so the campaign subsequently submitted another proposal that was identical to the first except for the introductory language, which had been changed to read, “Mr. O’Donnell is the Governor’s Cabinet appointee overseeing the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.” As a result, Secretary Spellings attended the event and DOEd used appropriated funds to pay for it. Because this event evolved from the request of a candidate’s campaign to “assist the campaign” by earning media and highlight the candidate’s “important work,” it should not have been classified as official. Using appropriated funds to send Secretary Spellings to the event violated the Hatch Act.

Likewise, DOEd Secretary Spellings’ remarks, proposed by the campaign as “reflecting on the important work Colorado is undertaking . . . under Mr. O’Donnell’s leadership” at an open-press event should have raised a red flag concerning the real reasons for the event, particularly given the campaign’s statement that such an event would assist Mr. O’Donnell’s campaign by earning media. An agency official’s remarks, as well as all other aspects of an event, should also be assessed after a trip is completed to be sure that an event initially labeled official in fact included only official activities before allowing U.S. Treasury funds to pay for the trip.

The report from the Office of Special Counsel makes it clear that the Bush White House used taxpayer funds for dozens of campaign appearances by top officials
on behalf of many Republican candidates.

In spite of the White House efforts, Democrat Perlmutter defeated O’Donnell.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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