The ever-broadening scandal over White House political operatives' involvement in what are supposed to be non-partisan activities within the federal government engulfed the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office) this week. On Tuesday, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the powerful chair of the House Operations and Government Reform Committee, accused ONDCP of electioneering on behalf of vulnerable Republican senators and congressmen in the run-up to last November's elections. Waxman is calling for a former high White House staffer to provide a deposition to the committee next week and to be prepared to appear before the committee as early as July 30.
An email from Doug Simon responding to Taylor's post-election memo only added more ammunition for Waxman and other critics of the White House's politicization of federal agencies and activities. In it, Simon summarized a meeting he had with White House political guru Karl Rove.
"I just wanted to give you all a summary of a post November 7th update I received the other night. Presidential personnel pulled together a meeting of all of the Administration's White House Liaisons and the WH Political Affairs office," Simon wrote. "Karl Rove opened the meeting with a thank you for all of the work that went into the surrogate appearances by Cabinet members and for the 72 Hour deployment. He specifically thanked, for going above and beyond the call of duty, the Dept. of Commerce, Transportation, Agriculture, AND the WH Drug Policy Office. This recognition is not something we hear everyday and we should feel confident that our hard work is noticed. All of this is due to our efforts preparing the Director and the Deputies for their trips and events. Director Walters and the Deputies covered thousands of miles to attend numerous official events all across the country. The Director and the Deputies deserve the most recognition because they actually had to give up time with their families for the god awful places we sent them."
"The list of Republican officials named in your memo reads like a roster of the most vulnerable Republican members of Congress seeking reelection in 2006," Waxman wrote. "Your memo identifies 29 events with 26 Republican office-holders. Assessments by political analyst Charlie Cook in October and November 2006 considered the re-election races of 23 of the 26 candidates identified in your memo as 'competitive;' 15 of the races were listed as 'toss-ups.' Your list included eleven Republican candidates who lost, ten who won their races with less than 53% of the vote, and two who won by fewer than 1100 votes. You included no Democrats or Independents in your memo of suggested travel by the ONDCP Director."
ONDCP has traditionally been a nonpartisan office. A 1994 law bars agency officials from engaging in political activities even on their own time, and certainly on the taxpayers' dime.
In 2003, thanks to a challenge to the drug czar's campaigning against a Nevada ballot initiative by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the US Office of Special Counsel held that the drug czar is subject to the strictures of the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan politicking by federal government employees. The ruling did little immediate good for MPP -- the special counsel held the ban did not apply to non-partisan initiatives -- but would appear to be applicable in the present instance.
Critics of the politicization of the drug czar's office were shocked, shocked, they tell you. "This is shocking evidence that the Drug Czar, John Walters, and President Bush were scratching each other's backs," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Walters used taxpayer money to campaign for Republicans, while President Bush ignored the agency's failures and increased funding for programs his own analysts determined were ineffective."
The recently released memos and e-mails are only the latest evidence that ONDCP uses taxpayer money to influence voters. During a 2000 federal lawsuit, evidence surfaced showing that ONDCP created its billion dollar anti-marijuana TV ad campaign to influence voters to reject state medical marijuana ballot measures. The drug czar and his staff are also routinely accused of using taxpayer money to travel to states in order to convince voters and legislators to reject drug policy reform.
"How long will the drug czar use taxpayer money to influence voters before Congress takes action?," asked Piper.
"ONDCP is charged with developing effective strategies to reduce drug abuse and the problems associated with it," said Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "Instead, under the leadership of political appointee John P. Walters, ONDCP has illegally wasted time and resources pursuing ideological agendas and partisan politics."
In light of the latest evidence of ONDCP misconduct, SSDP is calling for Walters's resignation. The group has created a sign-on letter to be sent to Walters and his congressional overseers where people who agree that Walters should resign can get their message out.
The Marijuana Policy Project has long complained about ONDCP's interference in state initiative campaigns, and was little surprised by the latest revelations. "These 2006 campaign trips were nothing new," said MPP director of government relations Aaron Houston. "Walters and his deputies have been using tax dollars to interfere in state election campaigns since at least 2002, which is why we filed a Hatch Act complaint that December."
And so there's lots more to find on the ONDCP front, according to Houston, if investigators care to look for it. "John Walters is a serial lawbreaker," he said. "The Oversight and Government Reform Committee is now investigating some particularly blatant violations, but the only reason Walters has been getting away with it for so long is that until now the White House investigated itself."
What a difference a congressional election makes. With Democrats in charge and more than willing to probe the Bush administration's dealings, ONDCP is now squarely in the sights of congressional investigators.