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New Probe of White House Seeks to Find Whether Tax Dollars Are Boosting Democratic Campaigns

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 26: U.S. President Barack Obama steps out of the Oval Office as he departs the White House June 26, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama is leaving for a two-day trip to Minnesota. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A House panel will probe whether a White House office has used taxpayer dollars to raise money and campaign for Democratic candidates around the country.

The White House has not said whether it will comply with a House subpoena for David Simas, director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday.

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“The fact is, there is not really any evidence to indicate there is a reason for Mr. Simas to appear before Congress,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday. He didn't say for certain that Simas wouldn't comply, adding, “We only recently received a subpoena, so we're still working on it.”

The White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach reopened in January for the midterm congressional races. It had been dormant since 2011.

The House Oversight Committee is trying to determine whether the White House is in violation of the Hatch Act, which limits certain political activities of federal employees to ensure that official government business is separate from partisan political activity.

The George W. Bush White House was deemed to have crossed the line on government and political activity by both a House Democrat report in 2008 and a nonpartisan Office of Special Counsel report in 2011.

U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, an internal government watchdog, has agreed to testify Wednesday, as have former White House officials from the Bush administration. Simas declined a previous invitation to appear voluntarily.

Questions over the use of taxpayer-funded resources for political purposes is not unique to the White House office; the Office of Special Counsel is currently investigating former Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and has cited former Obama Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for violating the Hatch Act.

“In an effort to appease its political allies, the Obama administration broadcast its intention to re-open a political office within the White House to assist in partisan election efforts and fundraising,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “This hearing will examine abuses of taxpayer funds for political gain and the level of White House commitment to preventing them.”

Earnest said the administration has been forthcoming in describing the office.

“In responding to questions from reporters and Congress, we've explained that the office operates in full compliance with the Hatch Act,” Earnest said. “To date, there is not any suggestion, let alone evidence, that we've deviated from the requirements of the Hatch Act. In fact, the Office of Special Counsel recognized in its 2011 report the propriety of having an office in the White House is to provide the president with information about the current political environment and political issues nationwide.”

The Los Angeles Times reported in May that Solis is still under investigation for a Hatch Act violation for asking a subordinate employee to contribute to Obama's re-election campaign while acting in her official capacity as labor secretary

In 2012, the special counsel's office concluded that Sebelius violated the Hatch Act for delivering partisan remarks during a speech in her official capacity as HHS secretary, Politico reported.

The Obama White House closed the Office of Political Affairs, abbreviated OPA, in January 2011 to pre-empt the release of a special counsel report.

“OPA employees should avoid engaging in political activities to prevent it from transforming from an official government office into a partisan political operation,” the report said. “In order to properly advise and assist the president, OPA staff necessarily remained informed about the current political environment. OSC believes these types of functions, which relate to the policies, initiatives, and agenda of the President, are not political activity under the Act.

“However, OPA staff, again under the direction of the director and the deputy director and their superiors, also engaged in activities that went beyond merely gathering politically relevant information for the purpose of advising the President on matters of policy,” the report continued. “OPA employees, particularly during the 2006 midterm election season, methodically coordinated administration support to aid the campaigns of Republican candidates.”

The White House reinstated the office in January for what the New York Times described as “defending Democratic control of the Senate and taking back the House from Republicans” and to “focus attention on candidate needs, including fund-raising.”

A Feb. 11 letter from Special Counsel Lerner to the committee confirmed the White House did not consult with the special counsel's office before the office was reopened. But on March 26, then-White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said in a letter to the committee that the White House office was in “regular contact with" the counsel's office.


Follow Fred Lucas (@FredVLucas3) on Twitter

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