Oversight Committee: White House attempted to influence Congressional elections

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A report released by the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today found that the White House had "used the political affairs office to orchestrate an aggressive strategy to use taxpayer-funded trips to help elect Republican candidates" during the 2006 Congressional elections. The actions of the White House may have breached the Hatch Act, which prohibits government involvement with taxpayer dollars in political affairs.

The Office of Political Affairs coordinated the efforts, and while it has been used in the past to support political parties, the Committee called the level of involvement "unprecedented" and a "gross abuse of public trust". A total of 99 Republican candidates were supported by the actions.

Political Affairs requested that its officials attend events of and support key members of the 2006–2007 Congressional race. Administration officials attended a total of 425 events, including parties, fundraising dinners, speeches, and appearances with Republican candidates — an average of more than an event each day of the election season. A third of the events were paid for with tax dollars.

White House emails used in the report referred to the taxpayer-funded events as "top priorities".

Former Political Affairs director Ken Melhman said during an investigative interview that it was a "big part" of his job was to "help elect allies of the President". The job was legal, he said, because it promoted executive allies. Mehlman had discussed his actions with the White House Counsel of the time, Alberto Gonzales, who approved of the efforts.

Do you think that the administration was justified in using the Political Affairs office?

The Committee noted that the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Walters, helped with nineteen events though his position was restricted from campaign activities.

Mehlman said that his department had worked directly with the National Republican Congressional Committee on the strategy. They had worked together to pick "vulnerable Republican incumbents", "battleground races" and "places where they agreed the most help was needed". The White House kept a 'target list' of 'allies' who were in tight races.

Investigators also questioned Sara Taylor, a former director of Political Affairs and Karl Rove aide. According to the report, Taylor resisted questioning and "misled the Committee about her actions". Taylor said the trips were efforts to be helpful but could not remember why some were helped and others not.

The report recommended an amendment of the Hatch Act and for the Political Affairs department to be abolished.

Republican Representative Tom Davis, a senior member of the Committee, said that every administration since Eisenhower has done similar things. He said the Democrats had set out to find banned activity and had "feigned shock", calling their response "righteous indignation".

A White House spokesman accused the Committee of trying to "score political points", and that the report was a waste of time and taxpayer money.