Novak falsely claimed GSA meeting "targeted no candidate for support"

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In a June 4 column, syndicated columnist Robert Novak claimed that deputy White House political director Scott Jennings "targeted no candidate for support" during a January 26 political briefing for General Services Administration (GSA) administrator Lurita Doan and more than 30 of the agency's political appointees. In fact, according to a May 18 report by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, Jennings' briefing specifically targeted dozens of Republican candidates for support and Democratic candidates for opposition.

According to the OSC report, the January 26 meeting included a presentation by Jennings that singled out GOP candidates:

Mr. Jennings' presentation then focused on the upcoming 2007 and 2008 elections. The slides included a list of Congressional Democrats targeted to be unseated in the 2008 elections, followed immediately by a list of Congressional Republicans whose seats need to be defended in the 2008 election. Mr. Jennings' presentation also contained a list of Congressional Senate seats up for election in 2008 and specifically designated the Senate seats the Republican Party needed to defend, as well as, the Senate seats targeted for a Republican Party offense. Mr. Jennings' presentation concluded with a slide entitled "Battle for Governors '07/'08." The slide identified all the states with 2007 and 2008 gubernatorial elections; the slide designated four states as "Republican Offense," five states as "Republican Defense," and five states as "Not Competitive."

Indeed, the slides from Jennings' presentation, made available by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, specifically list 79 candidates targeted for support or opposition. The OSC further reported that following the presentation, Doan asked Jennings, "How can we help our candidates?" The OSC described this question as an "inherently coercive" attempt to "ask and/or encourage her subordinates to engage in political activity." The OSC concluded that Doan violated the Hatch Act's prohibition against using one's official position to influence an election and submitted its report to the president for "appropriate action." An earlier version of the report had recommended that the president "take disciplinary action" against Doan, a conclusion changed to "appropriate action" in a cover letter attached to the final version of the report sent to Doan.

From Novak's June 4 column:

A year ago Lurita Alexis Doan, an innovative African American entrepreneur from Northern Virginia, took a big government job: chief executive of the General Services Administration (GSA). After 12 months she is on the ropes. She is the victim of a fiercely partisan Democratic congressman, an obscure government official trying to vindicate himself and a lame-duck Republican White House unwilling to protect her.

Next week, Doan is scheduled to again face the intimidating Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He will grill her about allegedly "misleading and false" statements she made to U.S. Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch. A 19-page report by Bloch finds her guilty of violating the 68-year-old Hatch Act -- which restricts federal officials from using their jobs for political purposes -- because in the presence of GSA political appointees, she was reported to have asked how to "help our candidates." With President Bush's political staff busy elsewhere, Doan has had to fend for herself and to retain the help of law and public relations firms.

This is a cautionary tale about Washington, where well-motivated people can find themselves sinking into a political cesspool -- especially at the end of an eight-year administration. With the GSA's 13,000 employees and $56 billion in annual contracts (to construct and maintain federal buildings), Doan was naive in thinking it enough to institute businesslike procedures. "Ever since I made the decision to restore fiscal discipline to all divisions within GSA," she has said, "I have had to face a series of personal attacks and charges." Clearly difficult to work with, Doan may face a humiliating dismissal by President Bush.

When Doan appeared before Waxman's committee March 28 on "allegations of misconduct," she was prepared to talk about her approval of a contract with Sun Microsystems that has been the subject of contention. Rep. Tom Davis, the committee's ranking Republican, who is not known to overlook GOP misdeeds, found "simply no evidence" that Doan "acted improperly."

Doan was taken by surprise that day to find Waxman concentrating instead on a Jan. 26 political briefing about the 2006 elections by Scott Jennings, deputy White House political director, to 30 GSA political appointees -- including Administrator Doan. Such briefings were delivered by Jennings throughout the federal government and are not viewed by the White House as violating the 1939 Hatch Act. Waxman fixed on this question said to have been asked by Doan at the briefing: "How can we help our candidates?"

That resulted in the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC), which tracks Hatch Act violations, saying it could "imagine no greater violation of the Hatch Act than to invoke the machinery of an agency . . . in the service of a partisan campaign to retake the Congress and the governors' mansions."

But the Jan. 26 meeting targeted no candidate for support, solicited no GSA employee for political activity and resulted in no follow-up. Doan's question actually was addressed to Jennings. "The harsh penalties under the Hatch Act for a brief slip-up are unwarranted," a congressional Republican source close to the situation told me. "Doan's resignation is a punishment that does not fit the crime."

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Robert Novak
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