Political Correction

Rep. Issa's Hatch Act Credibility Gap

June 20, 2011 3:15 pm ET - by Brian Powell

Darrell Issa

House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) has quietly scheduled a hearing for Tuesday titled "The Hatch Act: The Challenges Of Separating Politics From Policy." Although the hearing's purpose has not been made clear, the chairman has in the past few years engaged in two obviously partisan attacks that revolve around that statute, which restricts political activity by members of the executive branch.

Whatever angle the hearing takes, Issa's renewed interest in the Hatch Act now that there is a Democrat in the White House is convenient to the point of disqualification; during the Bush administration Issa was a staunch defender of former Bush administration official Lurita Doan, who was later accused of Hatch Act violations by the Office of Special Counsel.

Recently, Issa has i.) accused the Obama White House of violating the Hatch Act with its job offer to then-Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA); and ii.) criticized the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) for the timing and content of a report released earlier this year that found the Bush administration's political office violated the Hatch Act extensively.

There's evidence that Issa badly wants to pursue both attacks. First, the hearing is preceded by copious public allegations by Issa that the Sestak offer was a "crime" comparable to former President Nixon's involvement in Watergate. Just over one year ago, when Issa was the Oversight Committee's ranking member, he sent letters to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel requesting an investigation of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then-Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and their role in the "Sestak-Romanoff controversy." The Hatch Act prohibits White House staff with taxpayer-funded salaries from engaging in partisan political activity.

Issa's Sestak allegations, which were at one point the basis for his claim that an "impeachable offense" may have been committed, were largely discredited last year. GOP senators have balked at citing Hatch Act violations when asking for an investigation, and even the chief ethics lawyer for former President Bush said that the job offer was probably not a violation of the law, writing that "[t]he Hatch Act language is ambiguous and potentially very broad, but has not been interpreted and applied that way by the Executive Branch for a long time."

OSC has likewise pushed back on attacks Issa levied earlier this year complaining about the timing and content of their investigation of Hatch violations under the Bush administration.

Both lines of investigation would reveal Issa's partisan hypocrisy, given that he has a record of defending Hatch Act violators. In 2007, Issa stood up for Doan, Bush's chief of the General Services Administration, who was forced to resign after an Oversight Committee investigation found "evidence that Doan may have violated the Hatch Act in January 2007 by allegedly asking political appointees how they could "help our candidates" at an agency briefing conducted by a White House official." A subsequent OSC investigation found violations as well.

During a March 2007 Oversight Committee hearing, Issa defended Doan. NPR reported:

Republicans stuck up for Doan. Darrell Issa of California noted that she has been running GSA for just eight months: "In your eight months, I think you've probably found what I found in my nearly seven years now: That this is a bureaucracy that will resist you at every point, isn't it?"

Doan's reply: "You're absolutely right."

In May 2007, OSC concluded that Doan "violated the Hatch Act's prohibition against using your official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election when you solicited over 30 subordinate employees to engage in political activity."

Doan then returned to the Oversight Committee for a June 2007 hearing that focused on her alleged retaliation against subordinates who cooperated with the committee's investigation. (In an interview with OSC, Doan characterized the seven GSA employees who testified against her as having "between a poor to totally inferior performance" in their jobs, a claim that was later found to be "purposefully misleading and false.") Issa again focused on trying to protect Doan rather than asking tough questions.

Issa used his time in the hearing to apologize to Doan for the harsh questions being directed by Democrats on the committee, to justify her retaliation as "de minimis," and to run through a list of her recent charitable contributions in an effort to downplay the size of her political contributions. They had this exchange, reported by CQ Transcriptions (via Nexis):

ISSA: But I want to put something in context because I don't think you will. And I think it's fair that we should put it in context.

Is it true that you have given to, to the best of your recollection, Women's Corporate Directors Education Fund; the American Women's Business Centers, which is a film project; the Washington, D.C., Rape Crisis Center; the D.C. House of Ruth Homeless Shelter, primarily for women, I presume; the Whitman-Walker AIDS research program; the New York Stage and Film Foundation; CARE -- so far, are those all correct?

DOAN: Yes. [...]

ISSA:  You've given to Girls Incorporated; to the United Negro College Fund; to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; to the National Foundation for Teaching of Entrepreneurship -- something you know a great deal about -- to the Committee of 2000 Education Foundation.

DOAN: Committee of 200.

ISSA: 200, I'm sorry. It's growing.

(LAUGHTER)

The Shakespeare Theatre of D.C.

DOAN: Yes.

[...]

ISSA: And, my understanding -- because it's been made public -- is that these contributions each are as much as $1 million.

[...]

ISSA: Isn't that, sort of, a consistent balance of your giving back that you've done all your life?

DOAN: Yes.

ISSA: I hope I haven't badgered you too much by bringing these out.

But it does seem to me like if we're going to bring balance to this hearing, we need to bring balance that one statement was made that you've said you regret, a statement which it is up to others to decide whether or not that was outside the bounds and if it was, how venal it was. And it appears to be probably not outside the bounds, but even if it was it's a pretty de minimius statement compared to many of the things we've heard here today.

After all this, it appears that Issa suddenly wants to get tough on purported Hatch Act violations. Unfortunately, his past will probably preclude observers from taking this week's hearing seriously.

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