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10 more GOP senators demand answers from the NEA about teleconference

September 25, 2009 | 12:58 pm

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Ten Republican senators have written to National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman, expressing concern that the Obama administration may have violated federal law by trying to use the agency for political purposes -- something the White House and NEA have denied.

The charges stem from an Aug. 10 teleconference in which the NEA's communications director urged members of the arts community to help Obama's efforts to spur volunteer community service.

Yosi Sergant was subsequently demoted by Landesman, and resigned Thursday. It was accepted effective immediately, an NEA spokeswoman said, adding that Sergant left voluntarily because he thought "he felt he was becoming a distraction for the agency."

Sergant, a former Los Angeles publicist, supported Obama's presidential bid and worked closely with artist Shepard Fairey on his independent "Obama Hope" poster campaign.

At the White House, the special counsel's offfice issued a memo to "White House staff and...agency and department heads," urging all hands to avoid "even the appearance of politicization" during "public outreach efforts" like the teleconference. The White House previously had issued a statement of regret about the incident.

Patrick Courrielche, a former employee of Sergant's with his own Los Angeles marketing company, was part of the group phone call and later posted a recording and transcript.  Writing on the Big Hollywood blog, Courrielche said the teleconference was improper political organizing on behalf of the president's legislative agenda. Courrielche also shared his concerns, and parts of the recording, on Glenn Beck's Fox News program.

Questions from elected officials about whether the NEA was being politicized followed. First, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) sent an open letter to the president, raising concerns that the NEA had become subject to "political manipulation by the White House," and proposing congressional hearings.

He has now has been joined by all ten GOP members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. On Wednesday they signed the letter to Landesman, the NEA chairman, calling for a more detailed explanation of the teleconference. They also want assurances that it did not violate laws prohibiting federal agencies from spending tax dollars for political causes, and that ban employees from engaging in partisan politics while on the job. Enzi

Signing were Republican senators Mike Enzi (right) of Wyoming, the committee's ranking GOP member, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

They said that while they "appreciate" the statement that the NEA head issued this week on the controversy, they want more information. They requested that Landesman respond no later than Oct. 1

In the House, Rep. John Kline (R-Minnesota) called for a hearing on the matter by the Education and Labor committee. The committee's chairman, California Democrat George Miller, said he would give it "due consideration."

In his statement this week, Landesman said there was no political agenda or discussion of legislation on the teleconference, but that Sergant was demoted for crossing a line by urging artists to use their talents to support the government's volunteerism efforts, rather than simply sharing information on the volunteerism opportunities that are available through United We Serve .

The ten senators wrote that it is "problematic" that Landesman's statement didn't rule out the NEA continuing to spread the word about the volunteerism initiatives, and it also objected to a link on the NEA's website, since removed, to the Artists Healthcare Insurance Resource Center (AHIRC), which is sponsoring a write-in campaign urging Congress to pass "a real health care reform bill."

An NEA spokeswoman, Victoria Hutter, said Thursday that the link had been posted since the late 1990s because the endowment supported the Actors Fund charity for ill performers, which is affiliated with the AHIRC. But in the wake of the current controversy, she said, the endowment has realized "the need for an immediate and regular audit of its web site." The AHIRC link was removed to avoid "the appearance that the NEA is endorsing its lobbying activities."

The NEA's main role is sifting through nonprofit arts organizations' applications and deciding how about $133 million in annual grants should be disbursed,

In the transcript posted by Courrielche, the three government participants, Sergant, Nell Abernathy, director of outreach for United We Serve, and Buffy Wicks, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, assume their audience is pro-Obama; there is a blurring in their rhetoric between the goals of the election campaign and the goals of the volunteer programs they are promoting.

Wicks starts her presentation by noting that she was Obama's campaign field director in California and thanks her listeners "for all the work that you all put into the campaign for the two-plus years that we all worked together....We won and that's exciting, and now we have to take all that energy and make it really meaningful."

Abernathy also alludes to the arts community's "powerful" contributions to Obama's election victory, noting how Fairey's Obama poster  "made...our mission instantly recognizable and relatable to people."

Sergant then asks the artists to get involved in promoting volunteer service in "four key areas" that another nonpartisan government agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, has identified. In her talk, Wicks had listed them as health care, energy and the environment, education, and community renewal.

But when someone asks how artists can promote legislation such as health care reform and Obama's cap-and-trade pollution control proposal, Abernathy answers that it's not a proper subject for the teleconference. As a federal employee, she says, "we have to, for legal reasons, remain really separate" from partisan work, adding that at most she can refer the listener to the Democratic National Committee for further information.

As for Courrielche, he's taking some return fire in the blogosphere. In an article on the Huffington Post, writer Lisa Derrick suggested that he broke laws in various states against recording telephone conversations without the other parties' permission.

Under the California Penal Code, Section 632, it is a criminal violation, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine, to record a “confidential communication” over the telephone, “without the consent of all parties."

However, the state law has a broad exception: it is not illegal to record at "a public gathering or in any legislative, judicial, executive or administrative proceeding open to the public, or in any other circumstance in which the parties...may reasonably expect that the communication may be overheard or recorded."

On his blog, Courrielche issued a statement Thursday saying that since invitations to the teleconference went out nationally, including to some media outlets, and because it was organized by federal agencies, "there was no expectation of confidentiality or that the call would not be recorded."

White House spokesman William Burton said by email Thursday that "this is a state law enforcement question which we will have no comment on."

-- Mike Boehm

Related stories:

Texas Senator warns Obama against politicization of the NEA

NEA chairman explains communications director's demotion

Photo: U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi. Credit: Charles Dharapak/AP



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