(CNSNews.com) – House Republicans are seeking a congressional investigation and information from the White House to determine whether the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) pushed politics in a conference call with potential grant recipients.
Controversy erupted after the NEA, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the White House convened an Aug. 10 conference call, in which government officials appeared to encourage potential grant recipients to create art such as films, music or paintings that would support President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
“The Lobbying Act and the Hatch Act are there to make sure we do not see government personnel and assets used for political purposes,” Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, told CNSNews.com.
“It does appear laws were broken. I want to work within the jurisdiction where I have it, which is the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee. What the Justice Department does is not up to me,” Kline added.
Kline is seeking a hearing by his committee to determine how to ensure that politicization of federal agencies and federal grant money does not happen again.
Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is asking the White House to provide a complete list of the 75 participants in the conference call, an explanation of how invitees were selected, and a complete description of how the call was arranged.
Yosi Sergant, NEA director of communications at the time of the conference call, told those on the line that artists can work “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda – health care, energy and the environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.”
He also said, “This is a chance for us to partner with the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service in immediately effecting some change in our communities.”
Both the White House and the NEA acknowledged that Sergant acted improperly, but they stressed that the call was not part of an orchestrated effort to infuse grant money with politics.
Kline wrote a letter to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) asking for a hearing on the matter.
“The inference of federal funds being used to push a particular political agenda is deeply concerning and inappropriate use of federal funds. The stated role of the NEA is to increase access to the arts and arts education, not to promote any legislative agenda,” Kline wrote Miller.
“This is also an inappropriate use of the NEA’s authority as a grant maker, and could be interpreted by some grant recipients as coercion to promote a political agenda,” Kline added.
Miller indicated through his spokeswoman that he would give Kline's letter "due consideration."
“The chairman appreciates Mr. Kline’s letter and we’ll give it due consideration,” Miller spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said in an e-mail message to CNSNews.com Thursday.
Sergant is no longer communications director. He acted “unilaterally” without the approval of the agency, said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who defended the call but not Sergant’s comments.
“This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestion to that end are simply false,” Landesman said in a statement. “Rather, the call was to inform members of the arts community of an opportunity to become involved in volunteerism.”
The statement continued, “Some of the language used by the former NEA director of communications was, unfortunately, not appropriate and did not reflect the position of the NEA. This employee has been relieved of his duties as director of communications.”
White House officials told various federal agencies on Tuesday that they should be cautious to avoid even the appearance that politics played a part in the award of federal grants.
“The point of the call was to encourage voluntary participation in a national service initiative by the arts community,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement to the Associated Press. “To the extent there was any misunderstanding about what the NEA may do to support the national service initiative, we will correct it.”
But critics of the conference call believe it might have been illegal.
“Using taxpayer dollars and federal employees to create an alliance whereby the NEA becomes the de facto strategic communications firm of the White House is unlawful,” Issa wrote in a letter to White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett seeking information.
“Federal law is in place to prevent the political machinery of a campaign from carrying over to the White House after an election,” said Issa. “Activating artists and art groups reliant on NEA funds under the implied threat of withholding future grants is a Chicago-style tactic that should have been left on the campaign trail.”
The Anti-Lobbying Act and the Hatch Act are two laws that prohibit the use of government funds to promote a political candidate or advance a legislative agenda.
The anti-lobbying act states that no funds may be used for the purposes of, “Paying, directly or indirectly, for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a member of Congress or of a State legislature, to favor or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation or appropriation by either Congress or a State legislature, whether before or after the introduction of any bill or resolution proposing such legislation or appropriation.”
Meanwhile, the Hatch Act says that a government employee cannot “knowingly solicit or discourage the participation in any political activity of any person who -- (A) has an application for any compensation, grant, contract, ruling, license, permit, or certificate pending before the employing office of such employee; or (B) is the subject of or a participant in an ongoing audit, investigation, or enforcement action being carried out by the employing office of such employee.”
The committee should hold a hearing to address five points, Kline wrote the chairman. First, “an explanation of the call on Monday, August 10, 2009, and any other calls involved in an effort to push the president’s political agenda,” Kline wrote.
Second, the committee should seek, “an explanation of the link between this call and several participants or their organizations coming out in support of the president’s health care reform efforts within a short period of time after the call,” he wrote.
Third, “the coordination between the White House, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the National Endowment for the Arts that are related to this outreach effort.”
Fourth, Kline seeks to find “all preparations for the call and subsequent actions by and between the White House, the Corporation for National and Community Services, the National Endowment for the Arts and any other entity.” Finally, Kline wants “all follow up actions, including the reassignment of Mr. Yosi Sergant that followed this outreach effort.”
The audio of the conference calls was posted on Andrew Breitbart’s BigHollywood.com.
The Aug. 10 conference call with the NEA and the White House included individual artists and representatives of art organizations that supported Obama in the presidential election in 2008.
Sergant invited a group of “artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, tastemakers, leaders, or just plain cool people,” to participate.
During the call, Sergant said, “I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service.”
He continued: “Take photos. Take videos. Post it on your blogs. Get the word out. Like I said, this is a community that knows how to make a stink.”
During the call, Buffy Wicks, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, said, “We need your guys help to promote this,” apparently speaking of the Obama administration’s public service initiative.