The announcement in January that the White House was reviving the in-house political shop it abolished three years earlier has prompted the House Republican oversight committee chairman to seek documents from President Obama’s staff to determine whether the Hatch Act has been violated.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on Tuesday sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough inquiring whether the new Office of Political Strategy and Outreach is “using taxpayer money improperly to advance the interests of Democratic congressional candidates and the Democratic Party.” Issa simultaneously wrote to Carolyn Lerner who leads the Office of Special Counsel to complain that former Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in 2012 may have violated Hatch Act prohibitions on political activity by federal employees while on duty.
In his letter, Issa detailed the history of Democrats criticizing how centralized political activity was in what used to be known as the Office of Political Affairs during the George W. Bush administration. The Republican noted that Obama abolished the office in 2011, just days before an Office of Special Counsel report found that the “the basic structure of OPA violated federal law” and that the White House office’s activities were a misuse of taxpayer funds. The OSC, Issa added, informed his committee recently that the White House had not consulted the OSC before reconfiguring the in-house political office.
“The rebranded version of OPA appears to be undertaking precisely the same political activities that have raised questions in the past,” Issa wrote. “The White House is also apparently coordinating with Senate leaders to align the legislative calendar with the administration’s efforts to help senators facing difficult reelections.” His letter footnotes news reports since January referring to the new operation as a “one-stop shop for all things mid-terms,” and an “early warning system,” needed because, as an unnamed White House source told The New York Times, “It makes sense to have a political office during a congressional year to focus attention on candidate needs, including fund-raising.”
Issa noted that the 1939 Hatch Act -- amended in 1993 and 2012 -- requires “a clear dichotomy between the constitutional and statutory duties officials and any political or campaign-related activities in which they engage.” The letter asks the White House chief of staff for all documents, including emails, relating or referring to the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach by April 1.
In response, White House spokesman Eric Schultz told Government Executive: “The Office of Political Strategy and Outreach will coordinate the White House’s existing political strategy and outreach activities. This office serves as a single point of contact for the DNC and national, state and local political groups. A 2011 Office of Special Counsel report recognized the need for the president to get advice and political information but criticized the longstanding practice across multiple administrations of both political parties of having an Office of Political Affairs in the White House dedicated to systematic, campaign-related political activity. This White House recognized the need for a consolidated office to provide the president political information, which OSC has described as appropriate official activity.”
The Office of Special Counsel declined comment for this story.