Former USDA chief disputes Hatch Act report

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., on Tuesday disputed a federal watchdog agency's finding that his travel to appearances with embattled congressional candidates in 2006 while serving as Agriculture secretary violated a law regarding political activity by federal officials.

Johanns cited "inaccuracies" in the report issued by the Office of Special Counsel, a small agency that enforces workplace laws within the federal government, and asked it to "correct your report and the record."

OSC found that Johanns was among 10 Cabinet officials and agency heads whose travel during the 2006 midterm season violated the Hatch Act. According to its report, their departments and agencies improperly classified the events attended by their chiefs as official and paid for them with Treasury money, although their primary purpose was political-meaning that the campaigns should have covered the cost of their travel.

Specifically, the report found Agriculture was among those that deemed events "official" because they included an official function, but in doing so ignored a requirement that an event be considered political if its aim is to aid a political candidate or party.

OSC cited Johanns's travel just before the 2006 election to New Mexico and Arizona, where he made appearances at three events with former Reps. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.; former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. The report said the White House Office of Political Affairs had pressed officials to appear with Wilson, Kyl, and Renzi to aid their reelection efforts.

"Secretary Johanns's attendance at these events was political activity as defined by the Hatch Act and a reimbursement of travel-related costs and expenses should have been sought and obtained within a reasonable time," the report says. "Failure to do so was a violation of the Hatch Act."

In his letter to OSC, Johanns wrote that his department did classify the appearance with Kyl as political and provided receipts indicating reimbursement.

Johanns says that his other appearances were properly deemed official because they included USDA business. He noted that one was for a November 1, 2006, announcement that the Forest Service, part of USDA, would consolidate operations in Albuquerque, N.M.; the other was at Casa Grande City Hall with Renzi and area mayors to discuss the expansion of an "adjusted gross revenue-lite" insurance plan overseen by USDA into more states, including Arizona.

The OSC report, however, says that the involvement of the White House's Office of Political Affairs in planning the events, their designation of Wilson, Kyl, and Renzi as key candidates, and the fact that the events "took place within a week of the midterm elections, [indicate] a political motivation for the events."

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