House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa sent his latest subpoena to the Obama administration on Friday, demanding testimony from the director of a controversial White House office reportedly tasked with political work on taxpayers’ dime.
David Simas, the director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, has refused to testify voluntarily but will be required to answer questions in a July 16 hearing on Capitol Hill.
President Barack Obama closed the White House Office of Political Affairs in 2011, just days before an Office of Special Counsel report warned that it risked ‘transforming from an official government office into a partisan political operation.’
But the president reopened the office six months ago under a new name as Democrats began to gear up for a contentious midterm election fight.
The New York Times reported then that the White House was ‘serious about defending Democratic control of the Senate and taking back the House from Republicans.’
‘White House officials,’ according to the Times, ‘said it makes more sense to have a political office during a congressional election year to focus attention on candidate needs, including fund-raising.’
Issa, a hard-charging California Republican who has pressed the administration on alleged IRS abuses, said Friday that the White House’s reboot of its Office of Political Affairs was an ‘effort to appease its political allies’ by ‘assist[ing] in partisan election efforts and fundraising.’
Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius Issa said, ‘were faulted by the Office of Special Counsel for inappropriately using their offices in violation of the Hatch Act.
That federal law prohibits most executive branch employees from engaging in political activity while on duty, or at any time in their workplaces. It also prohibits them from soliciting or receiving political contributions, according to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
In 2012 Sebelius slipped a political message into a speech to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. The Office of Special Counsel later accused her of violating the Hatch Act.
She later said she had made a ‘technical’ error, and pledged not to repeat it.
The initial move to shutter the White House’s political office was spearheaded by California Rep. Henry Waxman in 2007, when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives and Waxman chaired the committee now run by Issa.
At the time it was seen as a partisan move to prohibit the George W. Bush White House from using the president’s bully pulpit to affect the 2008 presidential election.
Waxman’s staffers interviewed 20 political appointees and pored over nearly 70,000 documents. They issued a report one month before Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney, declaring that ‘American taxpayers should not pay the salaries of White House officials when they are engaged in helping members of the president’s political party.’
The Obama White House did not respond to a request for comment.
But newly minted White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston wrote to Issa in June to insist that the new incarnation of the political office operates without violating the Hatch Act.
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, however, wrote in March that the Obama administration reopened the office without consulting ith her to determine if it was legal.
Lerner will testify in the June 16 hearing, along with Simas and Scott Coffina, a former Associate Counsel to the President during the Bush Administration.
In March, Issa asked the White House to provide copies of all its documents related to the 2014 reopening. To date, it has provided none.