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Bush White House used taxpayer money to campaign for Mark Kennedy

In 2006, the Bush White House used taxpayer money to campaign for Republican candidates across the country, and George W. Bush took a particular interest in Minnesota, according to a report released Monday by the Office of Special Counsel. Former Rep. Mark Kennedy, who ran for the seat vacated by former Sen. Mark Dayton, benefited from a number of campaign appearances by Bush cabinet members, and those appearances were illegally paid for with taxpayer money, the report found.

The report, “Investigation of Political Activities by White House and Federal Agency Officials During the 2006 Midterm Elections,” found that “White House Office of Political Affairs (OPA) employees, as well as high-level agency political appointees, violated the Hatch Act through a number of practices that were prevalent during the months leading up to the 2006 midterm elections.”

The Hatch Act prohibits the use of government resources for campaign purposes.

But the report found that the OPA, under the direction of Karl Rove, repeatedly violated the Hatch Act. In one instance, the OPA singled out former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and the Secretary of the Interior indicated he wanted to assist his campaign for governor in 2006:

On October 20, 2006, former OPA Director Sara Taylor sent an e-mail to several OPA Associate Directors informing them that Secretary Dirk Kempthorne “Wants to help Taylor, Pombo and Gov. Pawlenty.” North Carolina Representative Charles Taylor was seeking reelection in 2006 and was listed as a “Tier 1” priority on OPA’s target list. Similarly, California Representative Richard Pombo and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty were up for reelection in 2006. Former DOI appointees testified that when Secretary Kempthorne expressed a desire to help elected officials in 2006, they interpreted it to mean he wanted to help those individuals with their reelection efforts.

While that OPA email only indicated support for Pawlenty’s reelection, former Rep. Mark Kennedy got a huge boost from Bush’s cabinet members. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Alphonso Roy Jackson, visited Minnesota to campaign for Kennedy on Oct. 12, 2006.

“The event was designated as political on Secretary Jackson’s Confidential Schedule and Travel Order Request and Authorization,” the report noted. “Specifically, the Secretary’s Confidential Schedule reflects that on October 12, 2006, Secretary Jackson was to participate in approximately 45 minutes of official activity and one hour of political activity, thus obliging the Kennedy campaign to bear financial responsibility for over 50 percent of the total travel costs.”

The fundraiser was listed as completed by Bush’s OPA and by HUD and was listed as 91 percent official and 9 percent political, instead of the 50 percent split that should have been taken by the campaign and the federal government. The report’s authors asked the department about the discrepancy.

In response, HUD acknowledged that the Kennedy campaign actually owed 57 percent of the total trip cost, or $542.46, as opposed to the $85.85 previously assessed. However, HUD has provided no evidence showing that the balance owed for Secretary Jackson’s political travel has been sought or received by HUD. Therefore, U.S. Treasury funds apparently were used to finance Secretary Jackson’s political activity in violation of the Hatch Act.

The event in question was held in Minneapolis to discuss “housing, homelessness and other issues affecting new and low-income Americans.”

The Bush White House also dispatched USDA Secretary Mike Johanns for a lunchtime fundraiser for Kennedy in Lake Crystal, Minn., on Mar. 23, 2006, and again for a political townhall and fundraiser on the Iron Range on Oct. 24, 2006. But according to the report released on Monday, there’s little record that the government was properly reimbursed for the event.

In the margin of both bills submitted to the Kennedy campaign for the expenses incurred by Secretary Johann were the words “Payment Unknown.”

The reports authors concluded, “This failure to ensure timely reimbursement of U.S. Treasury funds that were used for political activity was a violation of the Hatch Act.”

In yet another instance, the report found that a visit by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt on Oct. 27, 2006, in Minneapolis, didn’t appear to be billed to the Kennedy campaign at all. Despite being a political fundraiser, the trip was classified as “official,” the report states.

“However, the documentation provided to OSC by HHS regarding the Secretary’s October 27, 2006, travel to Minnesota indicates that the trip was classified as official, despite his attendance at a political fundraiser,” wrote the report’s authors. “In fact, the ‘remarks’ sections of the Secretary’s Traveler Authorization and Travel Voucher identified the official purpose of the travel as ‘Value Driven Healthcare.’”

The Office of Special Counsel concluded, “Failure to determine what percentage of U.S. Treasury funds was used to pay for political activity, and ensuring that those costs were reimbursed to the Treasury, was a violation of the Hatch Act.”

The involvement in Kennedy’s campaign was a small part of a much larger effort to turn an official government office, funded by the taxpayer, in to a political war room for the Republican Party.

The report’s authors identified numerous instances where campaign coordination occurred. Among the findings were that Bush’s office “worked with the RNC to develop a ‘target list’” of Republicans facing a close election. It also engaged in “asset deployment” by encouraging Bush’s political appointees — including cabinet members — to attend events with GOP candidates “in order to attract positive media attention to their campaigns.”

The office also used RNC Desk Coordinators “to help coordinate high-level political appointees’ travel to both political and official events with Republican candidates.” And the office kept track of GOP candidates’ fundraising numbers, tracked appearances by high-level appointees at campaign events, and, on behalf of the RNC, recruited political appointees to “participate in 72-hour deployment efforts.”

Though Mark Kennedy enjoyed unprecedented campaign assistance through Bush’s use of taxpayer money, he lost his race against Amy Klobuchar by a landslide in November 2006. Klobuchar won 58 percent to 38 percent.

Following Kennedy’s defeat, he would soon become a political appointee himself when President Bush named him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation in 2007.

So far, the Office of Special Counsel has been mum about why the report came out more than four years after the violations occurred, but according to Politico, the report may have been blocked by another Bush appointee, former Office of Special Counsel Chief Scott Bloch, who was convicted of concealing information from a House panel.

While the report specifically lists fundraisers and appearances by Bush appointees for Kennedy, most Minnesota Republicans received some help from Rove’s Office of Political Affairs.

In 2006, Pawlenty got visits from Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, HHS Secretary Leavitt, and USDA Secretary Johanns. Rep. Michele Bachmann was the beneficiary of visits from Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Interior Secretary Kempthorne.

The report’s authors don’t fault the candidates for the fact that public money was used to promote their campaigns by the Bush administration — the onus is on political appointees to reimburse the government for their political activity.

“If the campaign or political party does not timely reimburse the government, then the exempt employee will be billed for the outstanding amount because political activity is tantamount to personal activity,” the authors wrote.

The full 118-page report can be viewed at the Office of Special Counsel.

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