GSA chief grilled over potential Hatch Act violations

The chief of the General Services Administration endured a withering line of questioning from congressional Democrats Wednesday, focused heavily on allegations that she and other GSA officials violated a law that prohibits political activity within government offices.

Lurita Doan told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a contentious hearing called by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the panel, that she did not think that any government agency should be involved in partisan activity. But at the hearing, which lasted about five hours, she repeatedly asserted that she could not remember details of a Jan. 26 meeting at a GSA facility.

Democrats allege the meeting, attended by Doan and more than 40 other GSA political appointees, had a political purpose. The incident is under investigation by the Office of Special Counsel for potential violations of the Hatch Act, which bars government workers from engaging in political activity on the job.

The meeting was headed by Scott Jennings, a deputy to Karl Rove, the leading political strategist at the White House; some officials participated by videoconference. A 28-slide PowerPoint presentation at the meeting named 20 Democratic members of Congress that the White House is targeting for defeat in 2008. The presentation also listed the 36 Republican members of Congress the White House considers most vulnerable.

Doan would not comment on whether she thought the presentation had political purposes. She characterized the 1:30 p.m. session as a "team building meeting" that is hosted every month and is exclusively for noncareer employees at GSA, which is the government's procurement and property management arm. She told lawmakers she attends the meetings whenever she can, and that they involve a variety of speakers who address the group "in whatever particular area of expertise they have."

Once the Jan. 26 presentation was over, Doan was alleged to have said, "How can we help our candidates in the next election?" Doan testified she does not recall saying that.

A March 26 memorandum by Jack Maskell, legislative attorney in the Congressional Research Service's American Law Division, stated that it is possible that the meeting was purely informational or educational in nature. The intent of the meeting is central to determining whether the Hatch Act was violated, he stated.

"The White House briefing was partisan and it was strategic and it had no connection to GSA's mission," Waxman said. "This appears to be a textbook example of what should never happen at a federal agency. This may not be the only example."

Doan said she believed the meeting was appropriate. She said the White House called the meeting, and it was convened by J.B. Horton, GSA's White House liaison.

"We have a requirement to try to advance the policies of the administration and to make these successful," Doan said. "This brown-bag luncheon I believe has been mischaracterized. This is a team-building meeting."

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who led the initial questioning regarding the meeting, said the "American taxpayers should wonder if the only team being built here was the Republican Party team."

Doan acknowledged that she had received training on the Hatch Act, but noted she is a "businesswoman who is now in a government job for the first time." She said that the agency will likely review future PowerPoint presentations.

GSA Inspector General Brian Miller told members of the committee that Doan's alleged comments, the meeting and the PowerPoint are "very concerning."

But Republican committee members repeatedly accused the Democrats and the inspector general of launching a partisan attack on a Bush administration official. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., criticized the performance of GSA's inspector general and suggested that he should be fired for targeting Doan.

"This was a fishing expedition to get you," he told Doan. "What they tried to do to you is what they'll try to do to other appointees," Mica said. "She's been there eight months and they've made this eight months hell for her."

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking member of the committee, said the White House may have given the chart to all agencies, and that may or may not have been a good thing. He said it is something the committee should look into.

"I think this is something that goes on every day. This was done during the people's lunch hours," Davis said. "News flash: The president appointed a Republican to head GSA."

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., also noted that the PowerPoint document "reads like a presentation that might have been given to other agencies throughout the government."

An e-mail message from an official with the Republican National Committee to a GSA official, containing the PowerPoint document as an attachment, stated that the document "is a close hold and we're not supposed to be e-mailing it around."

The committee also addressed allegations that Doan and her senior staff intervened in a contract action with Sun Microsystems, reversing the judgment of three career contracting officers.

The GSA chief answered questions regarding her attempt to issue a $20,000 no-bid contract to personal friend Edie Fraser of Public Affairs Group Inc., as well.

Republicans, led by Davis, said the GSA inspector general has been on a "witch hunt" instead of going after waste, fraud and abuse. Davis said the committee's investigation is "bankrupt" and told Doan the probe is turning into an "assault less on you and more on the administration."

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