NEA Chairman Defends Controversial Conference Call

Sep 22, 2009 7:58pm

ABC News' Yunji de Nies reports:

This evening, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman released a statement on the controversial August 10 conference call, led by then-NEA communications director Yossi Sergant.  On that call Sergant seemed to encourage artists to help support President Obama's agenda, which has now prompted the White House to issue new guidelines to prevent such a call from ever happening again. At the time Sergant himself seemed to sense he was on shaky ground, telling the group, "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." The Administration's attorneys do not believe Sergant violated the law, however just today White House officials met with the chiefs of staff of the executive branch agencies to discuss rules and best practices. In an effort to "clarify the issues," Landesman laid out a list of what he calls facts.  While acknowledging that some of Sergant's language was inappropriate, the chairman says acted he unilaterally and points out that he has been stripped of his post as communications director, though Sergant is still an employee at the NEA.  Landesman nevertheless defends the call, saying it "was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false. Rather, the call was to inform members of the arts community of an opportunity to become involved in volunteerism." He goes on to say that the "call was completely unrelated to NEA’s grantmaking" and that "favoritism or political affiliation plays no role in NEA grantmaking." Landsman is new to job, he formally joined the agency the day after the call in question took place.

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