Bush Cabinet Secretaries Illegally Campaigned at Taxpayer Expense, Report Finds

Office of Special Counsel report exposes repeated violations of Hatch Act.

January 25, 2011, 2:54 PM

Jan. 25, 2011— -- Several high-ranking officials in the George W. Bush administration illegally used taxpayer-funded resources to campaign for Republican candidates during the 2006 midterm elections, an independent government watchdog concludes.

The Office of Special Counsel, which was created by Congress to investigate and prosecute federal employees who violate certain workplace standards, outlined the findings of its three-year probe in a report released Monday night.

The agency condemned overt electioneering by Bush appointees during the workday and the use of taxpayer funds to cover travel expenses for at least seven cabinet secretaries who were sent out on the campaign trail.

The Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits most federal employees from engaging in "an activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group" while on the clock.

According to the report, White House aides from the Office of Political Affairs delivered dozens of briefings at government agencies between 2001 and 2007 during which "the electoral success of the Republican Party, and possible strategies for achieving it, were often on the agenda."

"Because most of the briefings took place during normal business hours and in government buildings, many of the briefings implicated the Hatch Act's prohibition against engaging in political activity while on duty or in a federal workplace," the report reads.

Investigators also said Bush administration officials orchestrated more than 100 "politically motivated" trips by high-profile cabinet secretaries to strategic congressional districts, while publicly claiming they were for official business.

Among the examples cited in the report was a 2006 visit by Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson to the district of Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce. While Nicholson visited a clinic, met with veterans and appeared at a press conference with Pryce, investigators said, based on the evidence, that the only reason for the trip was political.

Transportation Secretary Maria Cino made a similar trip to Connecticut to appear with then-Rep. Nancy Johnson, and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne traveled to Arizona to appear with then-Rep. Rick Renzi. Four other cabinet secretaries also engaged in electioneering at taxpayers' expense, investigators found.

The report notes that administration officials occasionally use federal funds to travel for political campaign events but are required to later reimburse the government with political funds. In the cases cited, reimbursement did not occur.

"Because those trips were classified as official, funds from the U.S. Treasury were used to finance the trips and reimbursement from the relevant campaigns was never sought," the report says.

Bush Administration Members Violated Campaign Rules, Counsel Finds

The findings in the Office of Special Counsel report are based on more than 100,000 pages of evidence, most of which are e-mails, and 80 individual interviews.

The agency began its inquiry in 2007, while Bush was still in office, after allegations were raised.

Typically, the OSC would now submit its report to the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative body that could sanction or fire federal employees who violated federal law.

But in this case, officials said Tuesday, no referral will be made because none of the subjects of the investigation still hold appointed office.

"We will not be filing a petition for disciplinary action because the Board doesn't have jurisdiction after the employees have left their jobs," said OSC spokesman Darshan Sheth. The agency has also not made any referrals to the Department of Justice for further investigation or prosecution.

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