An August 10, 2009 National Endowment for the Arts conference call in which artists were asked to help support President Obama's agenda — a call that at least one good government group called "inappropriate" — has prompted the White House to issue new guidelines to prevent such a call from ever happening again.
"The point of the call was to encourage voluntary participation in a national service initiative by the arts community," White House spokesman Bill Burton told ABC News. "To the extent there was any misunderstanding about what the NEA may do to support the national service initiative, we will correct it. We regret any comments on the call that may have been misunderstood or troubled other participants. We are fully committed to the NEA's historic mission, and we will take all steps necessary to ensure that there is no further cause for questions or concerns about that commitment."
In the call, Yosi Sergant, then the NEA's communications director, seemed to encourage the listeners to create art to further the president's goals by promoting the United We Serve campaign and create art specific to areas of health care, education and the environment.
"I would encourage you to pick something, whether it’s health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service," Sergant said on the call.
Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, was also on the call, and thanked the artists "for being on the call and just a deep deep appreciation for all the work you all put into the campaign for the two-plus years we all worked together.”
At another point, Michael Skolnick, political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, said, "I’m hoping that through this group, and the goal of all this, and the goal of this phone call, is through this group we can create a stronger community amongst ourselves to get involved in things we’re passionate about as we did during the campaign. But to continue to get involved in those things, to support some of the president’s initiatives, but also to do things that we are passionate about and to push the president and push his administration."
White House officials say they are enacting specific steps to make sure such a call never happens again.
Today White House officials are meeting with the chiefs of staff of the executive branch agencies to discuss rules and best practices in this area, a conversation during which they will be told that that while White House lawyers do not believe that the NEA call violated the law, "the appearance issues troubled some participants," Burton said. "It is the policy of the administration that grant decisions should be on the merits and that government officials should avoid even creating the incorrect appearance that politics has anything to do with these decisions."
After listening to the transcript and the audio posted at the conservative website BigHollywood.Breitbart.com — secretly recorded by Los Angeles filmmaker Patrick Courrielche — Melanie Sloan, executive director of the good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told ABC News that the call was "disturbing."
"Government agencies are not supposed to be engaged in political activities," Sloan said. "Here, because they didn't veer off into 'This is about the election,' where you'd get into violations of the Hatch Act, it's not illegal. But it doesn't look good — it looks terrible. It's inappropriate."
The Hatch Act restricts the political activity of executive branch employees of the federal government.
Said Sloan of the conference call: "It's not what the NEA was created for, it's not supposed to be helping the president's agenda; that's not the point."
Burton added that the White House will be issuing a formal memo for White House staff "to that effect and will be doing training sessions and personal visits with staff here to make sure the message gets across."
Sergant seemed to have some indication on the call that maybe he was coming close to the line of inappropriateness if not crossing it.
"This is just the beginning," Sergant says on the call. "This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally. We're still trying to figure out the laws of putting government websites of Facebook and the use of Twitter. This is all being sorted out. We are participating in history as it's being made, so bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely. And we can really work together to move the needle to get stuff done."
When news of the call broke earlier this month, as ABC News' Yunji de Nies covered at the time, Sergant was reassigned.
In a written statement at the time the agency defended the conference call, saying that they had participated in it "with arts organizations to inform them of the president's call to national service. The White House Office of Public Engagement also participated in the call, which provided information on how the Corporation for National and Community Service can assist groups interested in sponsoring service projects or having their members volunteer on other projects. This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false."