*NEA chairman answers GOP concerns that his agency has a partisan agenda
Striking a polite, conciliatory note while asserting that there's nothing rotten in the state of the agency he's led for less than two months, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman responded today to Senate Republicans' request for information about a controversial Aug.10 teleconference that led to the demotion, then resignation, of Yosi Sergant, the NEA's rookie director of communications.
Apart from Sergant's participation in the conference call, "I am unaware of the use of any taxpayer dollars for the...conference call or related activity," Landesman said in his letter to Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. Enzi and his nine fellow Republican committee members last week wrote to Landesman, asking that he respond by today to their concerns, including whether NEA funds were being used to advance the Obama administration's legislative agenda on healthcare and other issues.
"This isolated incident, undertaken without agency approval and prior to my tenure, should in no way tarnish" the NEA's achievements and worth to the American public, wrote Landesman, whose letter was made available to Culture Monster by Enzi's committee staff.
Landesman's response reiterated what he said in a previous written statement on the matter: that Sergant, a former L.A. public relations man who had helped organize and promote artist Shepard Fairey's pro-Obama poster campaign during the 2008 election, had used "inappropriate" language during the teleconference, but did not overstep any of the legal prohibitions against on-the-job politicking by federal employees.
In the conference call, Sergant and officials from two other federal agencies had urged invited arts folk to join and help promote the president's United We Serve initiative that aims to increase charitable volunteerism nationwide. What got Sergant into trouble, the NEA has indicated, was that instead of merely informing his listeners about volunteer opportunities, he urged them to take part.
When word of the teleconference got out, and it was characterized by Fox News' Glenn Beck and others as a violation of the NEA's mandate to be a nonpartisan funder and promoter of the arts, Senate and House Republicans began demanding congressional hearings or, in the case of Enzi (pictured) and his colleagues, answers to questions.
Landesman's response today noted that all NEA staffers get annual ethics training, including warnings against prohibited political activities. But in light of the teleconference controversy, he said, training efforts are being stepped up in a way that dovetails with a memo that special counsels to Obama issued to White House employees because of the brouhaha over the teleconference. That memo outlined the need to "avoid even the appearance of impropriety" when addressing the public about government programs.
Landesman said that the NEA is also reviewing whether "to reinforce" its existing directives to staff members on complying with the laws and conduct standards governing federal agency employees, and whether to stiffen the consequences for violating them.
"Thank you for the opportunity to clarify this matter and assure you of my commitment" to a nonpartisan NEA, Landesman concluded. "I look forward to working with you going forward."
Enzi issued a statement saying that "on initial review [he] appreciates Chairman Landesman’s response and his commitment to ethics training to make sure this does not happen again. He looks forward to working with the Chairman to help fulfill NEA’s mission."
Less circumspect about the recent Republican questions, complaints and calls for hearings over the teleconference is Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), a leading arts advocate in Congress.
"It's outrageous...utter nonsense," she said this week, characterizing the stormy reaction as an attempt by conservatives to revive the "culture wars" of the late 1980s and early 1990s that centered on NEA funding of several confrontational visual and performance artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. The outcome was a steep reduction in the agency's funding, and a virtual end to NEA grants to individual artists.
"This is no different than what we went through before, with [the NEA] as a convenient whipping boy, always accusing them of some nefarious thing they haven't done," Slaughter said.
She added that the NEA shouldn't be deterred from pushing volunteerism opportunities and being an ally of self-employed artists who struggle to find affordable health insurance.
In regard to Sergant's resignation under pressure after finding himself in political crosshairs, Slaughter asked, "Is Glenn Beck the final arbitrator of who works in Washington?"
-- Mike Boehm
*Updated: an earlier version of this story misstated how long Landesman has held his NEA post. It has been less than two months, not less than one month.
Photos: Rocco Landesman; Mike Enzi. Credits: Michael Eastman; Charles Dharapak/AP