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White House fights to keep top Obama advisor from testifying before Congress

Published time: July 15, 2014 15:59
U.S. President Barack Obama (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

U.S. President Barack Obama (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

The White House is attempting this week to fend off a subpoena from Congress intended to compel a top political advisor for United States President Barack Obama from testifying on Capitol Hill.

On Monday, the White House sent a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asking the congressman to consider attending a closed-door meeting with administration officials on Tuesday in lieu of having an Obama aide answer questions on the Hill.

At issue is what David Simas, a top political adviser to the president, has to say about the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach’s compliance with the Hatch Act — a 1930 legislation that largely restricts members of the executive branch from engaging in partisan politics. Simas was appointed to head that office when its creation was announced by the White House in January 2014, and two months later Issa asked for "all documents and communications, including e-mails" about the launch of the government-funded department, according to Politico, which previously existed as the Office of Political Affairs.

Rep. Darrell Issa (Reuters / Larry Downing)

Issa responded to the White House’s silence by sending a subpoena last Friday to Simas’ office, requesting specifically that the director appear before Congress and speak as to OPSO’s role with regards to political campaigns and compliance with 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,” Issa said at the time. “This hearing will examine abuses of taxpayer funds for political gain and the level of White House commitment to preventing them.”

The administration rejected that request, however, saying the subpoena is "precipitate and surprising in light of our clear willingness to work with you to meet your informational needs" in a letter sent Monday by White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston. Instead of having Simas testify, Eggleston suggested, a private meeting could be held to discuss questions concerning OPSO’s compliance.

In your letter, you accepted my offer to have my staff provide a briefing on OPSO. You requested that the briefing take place before the hearing you have scheduled for Wednesday,” Eggleston wrote to Issa. “In response to your request, I have directed my staff to arrange to provide that briefing on Tuesday, July 15. I trust that the briefing will answer any remaining questions that you have about how OPSO is complying with the law governing political activity by federal employees, including the Hatch Act.”

While I am hopeful that we can work together constructively to address your stated interests, your subpoena is not helpful to these efforts. As you know, it has been the view of administrations from both political parties that summoning the President’s most senior advisors to provide public testimony raises significant separation of power concerns,” Eggleston added.

By early Tuesday, however, representatives for the congressman from California were telling reporters that Issa still wanted to hear Simas answer to the subpoena.

The subpoena for Mr. Simas’ testimony remains in effect,” Issa spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins said in an emailed statement to Roll Call on Tuesday. “The White House has had multiple opportunities to work with Congress to date, and has neglected to do so. Chairman Issa has allowed that if the White House provided the requested information to the Committee, he would reconsider but at present Mr. Simas is still expected to appear at Wednesday’s hearing.”

Wednesday’s hearing is tentatively titled: “White House Office of Political Affairs: Is Supporting Candidates and Campaign Fund-Raising an Appropriate Use of a Government Office?”

To date, there’s not even any suggestion, let alone evidence, that we’ve deviated from the requirements of the Hatch Act,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said late last week. “In fact, the Office of Special Counsel recognized in its 2011 report the propriety of having an office in the White House to provide the president with information about the current political environment and political issues nationwide."

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