Thursday, March 29, 2007

She remembers "team-building," but not much else

Today I’m going to follow the old Gene Roberts rule. Back when he was running the Philadelphia Inquirer, he would tell reporters to “zig while everyone else is zagging,” which was his way of saying not to follow the crowd. Therefore, since so many colleagues are currently tracking the Senate testimony of Kyle Sampson, the Justice Department figure who helped effectuate the federal prosecutor purges, I’ll focus instead on an underreported incident that occurred yesterday during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing.

It featured Lurita Alexis Doan, a Bush appointee who runs the General Services Administration, an agency with a $60-billion budget that manages federal buildings and buys the equipment that its workers use. Don’t yawn. The GSA incident is directly related to the prosecutor purge scandal. It is another facet of the same Bush administration impulse to politicize the nonpartisan institutions of government, and make them subservient to the partisan needs of the White House.

I want to share a slice of Doan’s embarrassing testimony, but first it’s important to establish the context. It’s very simple:

The federal Hatch Act, enacted in 1939, prohibits federal employes (who work for all taxpayers) from engaging in partisan political activities in the workplace. But two months ago, on Jan. 26, GSA hosted a brown-bag employe lunch, starring Karl Rove’s deputy political director, J. Scott Jennings. Doan attended. Also participating, via teleconference, were 40 Republican appointees who work elsewhere in America. The Rove deputy, also via teleconference, gave a PowerPoint presentation. His topic: the 2008 House and Senate elections, with rundowns on which Democrats would be targeted and which Republicans should be defended.

Was this a Hatch Act violation? I report, you decide.

The White House political shop sent the Jennings material over to GSA one week in advance of the brown-bag lunch, using a Republican National Committee email address. A Jennings assistant urged, "Please do not email this out or let people see it. It's a close hold and we're not supposed to be emailing it around." The recipient, at GSA, was a Doan assistant.

What sound does an animal make when caught in a leg trap? Let’s join the Wednesday testimony in progress, and hear the human equivalent.

Doan: “…Honestly, I don’t have a recollection of the presentation at all.”

Congressman Bruce Braley of Iowa then showed her the PowerPoint page listing Rove’s top Democratic targets of 2008. He asked Doan to acknowledge the political content therein.

Doan: “Yes, it appears – I honestly…I really truly don’t remember seeing this chart ‘til yesterday when I tried to dig it up. I don’t know what the explanation was that accompanied this. I truly do not remember this part of the presentation.”

Braley: Are you familiar with the word “target?”

Doan: “I think I can say I’m one right now, yes.”

Braley tries again, asking whether she agrees that this was political content.

Doan: “I appreciate your interpretation of that…This was not my meeting…I attended the meeting, yes.”

Braley tries again: Wasn’t this a political presentation, to target Democrats in an election?

Doan: “No, I would not say that. I’d say this is a slide that says, ‘2008 House targets, top 20.’ I do not want to speculate on what was intended by Mr. Jennings on this slide…I possibly saw it during the meeting…I don’t remember it during our meeting. I don’t remember the PowerPoint presentation clearly during our meeting.”

After several more exchanges, and finally getting Doan to acknowledge the obvious (you can watch the whole exchange here), Braley got to the gist of the matter: “What, if anything, do these slides have to do with the GSA’s core purpose of procuring supplies and managing federal buildings?”

Doan: “This brown-bag luncheon I believe has been mischaracterized. This is a meeting that is a team-building meeting…I try to attend whenever I can…We look upon this as team-building…I’m trying to build a superior management team…”

Braley noted that she had not answered his question, so he refined it, asking what a political election briefing had to do with “team-building.”

Doan: “This is a brown-bag luncheon…This is not my presentation.”

Braley then said that the Hatch Act banned “team-building” in the federal workplace for either political party. He then asked Doan about a couple remarks that she is alleged to have made at the conclusion of Jennings’ presentation. One witness, a Republican appointee, has stated in a deposition that Doan asked Jennings, “How can we use GSA to help our candidates in the next election.” Did Doan say that?

Doan: “I do not have a recollection of actually saying that.”

It gets worse. Another sworn witness recalls Doan asking Jennings, “How can we use different GSA projects – building openings and the like – to further aid other Republicans?” Braley wanted to know whether Doan had said that.

Doan: “I do not have a recollection of saying that.”

You get the idea. Just another day in the life of a waning administration, exposed for the first time to the pitiless glare of accountability.